Please: stop “hiring to cultural fit”

By Laura Bergells on

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.