Is culture fit an excuse to be biased?

Our current focus on bias, both overt and covert, brings up the question of culture fit. Is it as important as we seem to think? Numerous articles and videos tout that those who fit a corporate culture are more productive and stay longer. What research supports this, and more significantly, what definition of cultural fit are we using? 

Defining culture is not as simple as it seems. Many corporations have a set of values that they espouse and they believe that those values create the culture. And it then follows, they say, that the best candidates are those who are aligned with those values.

But in reality, most organisations do not practice the values they espouse, and individual functions and departments within an organisation may have different values. Culture is far more than values. It is also the way people make decisions, how people communicate, the habits and ways of thinking that have evolved. 

Ed Schein, a professor at MIT, was a pioneer in creating an academic understanding of corporate culture and wrote one of the first books about it.

He defines culture as the accumulated learning of a person’s background, country, company, workgroup, and occupation. Corporate values are interpreted by how people act and how they get work done. And even deciding if work is being done according to values is subjective. For example, if a corporate value is respect what behaviors indicate that? Values vary from department to department and between professions. Finance people often have a different culture than engineers, for example.  

It is impossible to have a single comprehensive definition of culture and use it to screen candidates objectively. Culture and cultural fit are too complex to be defined well or unearthed in an interview or through a test. 

I am concerned that recruiters and hiring managers use a simplistic definition of corporate culture and cultural fit to reinforce their own biases. Hiring managers, recruiters, and senior leaders have stereotypes about what makes a good candidate. They have beliefs about cultural background, education levels, schools people attended, grades achieved, and activities participated in. They may favour people from one organisation over another. One set of corporate values may say that energy and passion are critical. And then, we decide that the male candidate is energetic and a go-getter but that the woman is overly aggressive. Or that young candidates have more energy and willingness to go the extra mile than do older ones.

At best, we pick out those few indicators that align with those that we already believe are important. When we say a candidate is not a fit, it is often a thinly disguised code for not hiring someone who does not fit our own or the organisation’s bias.

The statistics on the low number of minority candidates and women who are hired tell us that something more than credentials is at play. By rejecting people who are different or who do not think the same as we do, we run the danger of reducing the diversity of thought that creates change and drives innovation. We know that without diverse ideas and people who challenge the status quo, organisations rarely successfully navigate the uncertain future, especially in this time of a pandemic.

There are other concerns about cultural fit. How important is culture fit when hiring remote workers or workers in different countries? Is it important that temporary workers fit the culture?  Does every type of worker need to fit the culture?

We all look for differentiators to help us make decisions. But using ones that are biased and do not lead to improved productivity or performance is counterproductive. Wouldn’t it be better to focus on finding people whose motivation, interests, and skills are a good match for the position offered and forget the pseudo-psychology? 

Cover image: Shutterstock

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