The dangers of hiring for “culture fit”

Wanting someone who plays well with others isn’t bad in theory—but too many managers confuse harmony with conformity

 
Identical men walking in rows

(Skopein/Getty)

You might not know it from its excess of hair-braiding tutorials, but Pinterest has a dude problem. The San Francisco–based social network is staffed mostly by men, especially in engineering roles. This is true of most tech firms, but considering that the site’s user base is about 85% female, it’s egregious.

To Pinterest’s great credit, its leaders are working to balance the gender ratio. In a much-discussed blog post, co-founder and chief creative officer Evan Sharp recently detailed the company’s plan, which includes mandating that at least one woman and one person from an underrepresented background be interviewed for every leadership position. “Over time, we hope to help build an industry that is truly diverse, and by extension more inclusive, creative and effective,” Sharp wrote.

What’s most impressive about Pinterest’s plan is not its commitment to diverse hiring (though that’s very welcome), but its acknowledgment that a homogenous work environment is a liability, not an asset, in building a sustainable business. That’s a message of crucial importance today, as far too many companies find themselves rapidly moving toward monoculture.

It’s all because of “culture fit”: the practice of hiring individuals as much—if not more—for their ability to “click” with their co-workers as for their experience or qualifications. It’s become the HR rubric du jour. In a 2013 survey, 82% of people who make hiring decisions felt culture fit was important in the hiring process; 59% had rejected candidates who didn’t fit in. Many thriving companies, including Zappos, Whole Foods and Canada’s own G Adventures, have long used culture fit interviews as a decisive hiring factor.

As a concept, it’s not a bad idea. Everyone wants a friendly work environment, and people generally like to go to work when they work with people they like. But too many managers who’ve hopped aboard the culture-fit bandwagon are getting it wrong by confusing “harmony” with “conformity.” Instead of hiring for a wide array of complementary personalities and skill sets, they fall prey to hidden cognitive biases and hire people who are similar in background and behaviour. When the pressure is on to fill a position, it’s easier to use the clichéd “beer test”—as in, “would I have a beer with this guy”—as a decision-making tool than it is to undergo the complicated and time-consuming work of a more nuanced assessment.

Which is how a business started by a trio of tech bros ends up staffed by a whole bunch of other tech bros. If the business finds some success, it feels foolish to disturb the ecosystem by introducing anyone who differs from the existing norm. That hive-mind mentality—sometimes indispensable in the early days of a growing business—can harden into cultural orthodoxy.

When this happens, the concept of culture fit becomes little more than casual discrimination. That’s a bad look in 2015—and not just because it can lead to serious legal and PR consequences. Homogenous work environments create what tech veteran Mitch Kapor—the guy who built Lotus 1-2-3, among other things—calls “mirror-tocracies,” in which the people who get ahead are those who best exemplify the status quo.

That’s a bad thing. A 2009 study by researchers at Northwestern University, Brigham Young and Stanford universities found that groups of workers with different opinions and social standings performed better than groups of like individuals, even though the latter group felt more confident about the quality of their work. Why? “The mere presence of socially distinct newcomers… motivates behaviour that can convert affective pains into cognitive gains,” the researchers wrote. In other words: When different types of people enter the mix, everyone is more inclined to up their game.

So if you want your business to achieve more than killer happy hours, give a chance to the qualified candidate who doesn’t immediately, obviously fit in. She might be the person who saves your “culture” from becoming a homogenous echo chamber destined for irrelevance.

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