Please: stop “hiring to cultural fit”

By Laura Bergells on
parrot

I bristle at the trendy, thoughtless phrase “hire to cultural fit”. And I’m not alone.

Often, you’ll hear this phrase parroted at tech, business, and startup conferences. Generally, it means, “when hiring, consider personality first — consider tech and business skills second”.

Here’s the loosey-goosey rationale for ‘hiring to cultural fit’:

“Hey, it’s easier to beef up a cool guy’s tech skills than it is to teach a nerdy weirdo how to fit in! And in a company culture where everyone gets along and agrees? Why, your efficiency and productivity will soar!”

There’s so much wrong with the tired ‘hire to cultural fit’ line. (Tech skills are easy to teach! Social skills are hard to teach! You need people who all agree to succeed! Creative tension is bad! Etc.) But for now, I’ll only break it down into two ways that saying the phrase makes you seem egregiously insensitive.

  1. “Hiring to Cultural Fit” is perceived as code for “Discriminate Against Women and Minorities”. Here’s the unspoken code, cracked’: “It doesn’t matter if the woman is a better coder: a female presence in the workplace is going to end up being a problem. No matter how hard she tries, we can’t teach her how to be ‘one of the guys’. And the black homosexual guy? Sure, he’s technically better for the technical job — but only technically. He ‘talks black’ and ‘acts gay’ — and that’s going to make the majority feel uncomfortable.”
  2. “Hiring to Cultural Fit” often relies on unwritten and unspoken gut feelings (i.e., unacknowledged stereotypes and prejudices) about who fits in the culture and who doesn’t. Companies that frequently chant the ‘hire to cultural fit’ mantra often cannot define and document what their company culture actually is. How can saying ‘hire to cultural fit’ NOT open a company up to a discrimination lawsuits? Especially when you tell a highly qualified candidate that she ‘isn’t a good fit’ — but can’t document or describe what ‘a good fit’ is?

If you’re a company leader or founder, please consider another approach. Instead of defining your company culture outright, start with a corporate constitution. A constitution is a living, changing document that makes company operating principles and core values explicit. Please note the distinction: a constitution doesn’t define culture. Rather, the people who agree to work within the framework of the constitution actively create the company culture.

Think of your constitution as an openly available document that only begins to shape your company culture. Ultimately, company founders don’t get to define or create the culture: the employees, customers, and other important stakeholders do. The constitution only serves to guide the culture.

To paraphrase a local tech company leader, “Culture is what happens when the boss leaves the building.”

Further, a constitution is open to being amended as time and technology advance. Guiding principles and values that worked well 200 years ago may not work so well today. A constitution is an imperfect document that needs defending, strengthening, and updating.

Writing a constitution even sounds like a noble endeavor. By contrast, company leaders will probably feel like slimy supremacists or crazed dictators if they go on an executive retreat and try to define and defend a superior master culture. (And if they don’t feel slimy…why not?)

If you are indeed a company founder, please think about writing a constitution that helps your employees grow your culture into something bigger and better than your executive team can possibly hope to define.

And please — stop saying “hire to cultural fit”. You might be surprised to know that it offends more people than it charms.

photo by: dtaylorcreative

11 comments

  1. Well said. I’m a mid-50′s yr old woman with strong experience in both front and back end web development, an excellent resume, and have been unable to find steady work in the industry for over 3 years. I finally accept the fact that it’s because I’m old, which you forgot to add to this essay.

    It too me a long time to believe it, however I recently got unexpected confirmation when I was hired, via the web and a temporary service, so they didn’t know my age, to run the door for a high end private tech event here in NY. The attendees were the leaders and employees of very successful tech companies and start-ups, the speakers CEOs of the same.

    At a certain point the door was closed, and I stood in the back listening to the conversation onstage. What I heard made steam come out of my ears. I was the oldest person in the room of about 200 people, by far. The CEO onstage in conversation said he hires on personality, and the average age of his entire company is 25. If the prospective employee asks about money at any point in the hiring process, they are immediately eliminated from being considered.

    The look on my face must have been priceless, because after about 15 minutes of listening to this very private horseshit, the woman who hired me turned and saw me listening, and asked me to leave then.

    I can run circles around these people creatively and technically thanks to my excellent, successful experience, yet would never in a million years be considered for a job in any of these companies. I’m only good now for checking names off a list.

    I am still angry about it. I think these types of meetings go on all the time, it’s a self fulfilling circle jerk. My only consolation is these people will one day be my age.

  2. Laura, what you describe isn’t hiring for cultural fit. It’s bad hiring. It’s discrimination, pure and simple.

    Culture is what you can discuss, what’s rewarded, and how people treat each other. That’s Edward Schein’s definition. People can abuse any definition. Right now, they are abusing the definition of cultural fit so they can claim they are hiring for fit. They still aren’t.

    I’ll write a piece on my blog about what they *are* doing.

    But ignoring technical skills? No, that’s crazy.

  3. Marcia: I respect your anger. I can’t count the times I’ve seen highly competent men and women hit ‘that magic age of 50′ and suddenly, they’re ‘not a good fit’ for a corporation anymore. In some small start-ups, I sometimes get the sense that an older employee doesn’t seem to fit for a what I can only describe as a substance abuse culture.

    Johanna: The very phrase ‘cultural fit’ even sounds patriarchal. Even at its very best, the phrase has been appropriated by company leaders who use it arrogantly. Instead of trying to reclaim or defend it, why not drop it entirely?

  4. Thank you for your thoughtful response, Laura,and your astute observation of what’s happening.. One thing: I was privy to a very controlled event, my instructions were to let NO ONE in who wasn’t on the list.. What shocked me was these attitudes are being disseminated from the top down, you should have seen the rapt faces in that audience. I can only compare my accidental being there to an African American serving dinner at a KKK meeting. In my opinion, it’s going to get much, much worse before it gets better. The 20-30 somethings were absorbing the “wisdom” from on high, and it’s trickle down from there as they advance in their careers. The company that hosted this does so 2-3 times a year, all invite only events, and is an extremely well respected “innovation and design firm that uses a human-centered, design-based approach”. Riiiight.

    It’s bad.

  5. Marcia:

    Human-centered design! That’s another suspect phrase. I met a group of jargonistas that work for a ‘human-centered’ design firm. I asked:

    “When you think about it, isn’t all design done by humans ‘human-centered’??? It’s not cow or pig centered. Why not just call it ‘design’???”

    They started babbling more jargon that I’m sure they didn’t understand, either.

  6. Pingback: When is “Hiring for Culture” Discrimination? | Hiring Technical People

  7. Hiring for cultural fit by it’s very definition is going to expose organisations with malignant cultures.
    Getting those signals early helps us eliminate them from our list of prospective employers saving valuable time.
    The unexpressed hope is that the best of us, regardless of background, will gravitate towards those broadcasting more positive messages. Hiring for agile values for example, I’d expect a far higher level of diversity than if your culture valued employees only as resources.

  8. Anthony — isn’t it a privilege to think that way?

    Why is it, then, that so many development shops are wildly overpopulated with white men?

    I suspect a patriarchal system blinds many to malignancy.

  9. Hi Laura

    I feel there is an unexplored assumption in your response: that there’s a correlation between quantity and quality and that it follows an even bell-curve-type distribution.
    My own research indicates that isn’t the case, that the number of exceptional organisations is far fewer than whose with a vested interest would prefer for us to present.

  10. What Marcia wrote about what happened behind the closed doors of that conference reminds me of what Michael Moore was able to observe in the mid-80s at a closed conference of business men coming together to discuss outsourcing. It seems to me that exclusion of a sizable part of the workforce just needed a different name in the “knowledge economy.”

    I also turned 50 this year and – knock on wood – get to keep my IT job. However, the company I work for is going through a post-merger “agile transformation” (in a setting where a part of the company was already agile pre-merger) and the HR people are not very imaginative to get a grip on aligning the bonus structure with agile values. In comes the “behavior focus” and “truly bringing ATTITUDE to the fore for ALL”. Behavior will be peer-rated via surveys. My favorite: “displays a positive* attitude when working with me (* constructive, optimistic and helpful)”.

  11. Hi Laura. I’m new to your site as we have just become mutual twitter followers. Just wanted to say I enjoyed this article and comments very much and applaud you for fighting the good fight against discriminatory hiring practices–by any name. Keep up the great work. I look forward to reading more of your work.

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