The problem with culture fit 🥨
Why "culture fit" is affinity bias in action.
Hi Sophie, we’d love to invite you for an introductory interview to get to know you better and assess whether you’d be a good fit at COMPANY X.
When it comes to recruiting, job interviews are about more than a candidate’s qualifications and experience – they’re also assessments of compatibility. Will this person fit into our team?
But, what does being a good “culture fit” really mean? Getting along with the team? Looking (and thinking) like the rest of the team? Sharing the company’s core values?
On its face, hiring for culture fit makes sense. Why wouldn’t you want to hire someone who will easily fit in and get along with everyone else?
Here are some questions I’d love to ask a potential teammate:
What is your international experience?
How do you deal with stress?
Do you like watching reality shows and is your favorite one Too Hot to Handle (or Love Is Blind or Are You The One? or Selling Sunset)?
Do you spend an embarrassing amount of your free time walking to your refrigerator, opening it, closing it, and then opening it again in the hopes that you’ll spot something you can snack on?
Are your wild ambition and strong work ethic driven mainly by a deep-seated fear of death?
Sorry, I might’ve gotten a bit carried away there.
But anyway, do you see the problem? If you (the candidate) answered yes to questions #3, #4, and #5, I’d definitely be more likely to hire you. Also, I think we’re soulmates?
What we see when we hire for culture fit is affinity bias in action. In the simplest terms, affinity bias basically describes how we like people who are like us. We gravitate towards people who are similar to us. It is one of the many types of unconscious bias prevalent in the workplace.
Who Loses When You Hire for Culture Fit?
The problem with these compatibility assessments is that they are subjective and give way to bias.
For example, in a study of hiring practices at elite banks, professor Lauren Rivera found that interviewers would look at their own backgrounds and experience to determine good performance. One of the banks only wanted lacrosse players, for instance. Lauren explains:
They said, “All the MDs (Managing Directors) here play lacrosse, so that’s why we look for a lacrosse player. He’ll do awesome here.”
If this isn’t a blatant example of affinity bias, I don’t know what is. Also, lacrosse? Really?
Because the majority of executives and business leaders are still White men, women and people of color are often left at a disadvantage – but other groups are affected as well:
Ageism is widespread in tech companies, for example, where tech workers over 35 years old are considered “old” in the industry.
Extroverts are more likely to land a top job, even though introverts can be more effective leaders.
People with disabilities have to work extra hard. One study found that employers are less likely to interview candidates who disclose disabilities in cover letters.
Obese people are perceived as having less leadership potential and being less suitable compared to “normal weight” candidates.
Culture Add > Culture Fit
In some companies, hiring for culture fit doesn’t necessarily mean hiring the most compatible candidate. It can mean seeking out the people who will drive your culture forward by challenging the status quo and shaking things up. A better way to describe this is hiring for culture add.
As Charisse Fontes, Founder of boutique culture consulting firm Culture Circle, puts it:
Culture fit indicates a pre-determined box that you want someone to form and assimilate in. By design, it’s exclusive. Culture is continuously evolving. What fits now won’t fit later.
Instead, “culture add” is about belonging and investing in the evolution of your company culture. While culture fit creates homogenous companies where everyone thinks (and, most likely, looks) the same, culture add promotes diversity – and, as we’ve seen time and time again, diversity is good for business. Research shows that being around people who are different than us actually makes us more creative, more diligent, and more hard-working.
And don’t forget: fit goes both ways. As a candidate, what are you looking for? What would be a good fit for you?
De-Bias Your Recruiting
While we all have a natural tendency to gravitate towards the people who we feel share our beliefs, interests, and values, there’s no excuse to continue to hire people who look and think like you.
You can use tools to evaluate your job descriptions and whether they use gender-biased language. Here are a few:
In the actual interview process, have a diverse group of people conduct the interviews. Different perspectives should help balance the hiring decision.
Assess for culture add by asking these interview questions:
Tell us about a time when you had to do something you didn’t agree with at work. How did you handle it?
How do you measure success at work? What does a successful day at work look like for you?
How do you like to be managed?
How do your colleagues benefit from working with you specifically, as opposed to one of your coworkers?
Tell me about a time when understanding someone else’s perspective helped you accomplish a task or resolve an issue.
What is your impression of our company’s culture, values, and mission? How do you think we could improve?1
I’ve talked about culture fit and affinity bias mostly in the context of the hiring process, but it can persist beyond a company’s recruiting processes.
As an employee, you might prefer to work with the people you like or get along with the most (I’ve certainly been guilty of this in past roles). Try to step out of your comfort zone and work with people who will challenge your way of thinking and fill in your knowledge gaps.
Take It Away 💃
Hiring for “culture fit” is often subjective and gives way to bias, primarily affinity bias, which describes our tendency to favor people who we feel are similar to us and who we feel share our values, interests, and beliefs.
Hiring for “culture add” means hiring people who can bring in new processes and techniques, fill in knowledge gaps within your organization, challenge your current ways of thinking and working, and represent a viewpoint that you’re currently missing.
Affinity bias doesn’t just apply to the recruiting process. Everyone within an organization can play a greater role in actively seeking out different opinions and perspectives.
DEI Win of the Week 🌓
Okay so, I
can’t promise this will be the only time I promote my work, but I’m really excited to share this with you!
I’m giving this week’s DEI win of the week to me! This week, I launched a new publication called The Half-Child. In it, I’ll share stories of people like me – people of mixed race, ethnicity, nationality, and ultimately, identities. Growing up mixed can be confusing, awkward, and frustrating – but it’s also an incredibly unique, magical experience.
The first post is up – featuring Sara Jalal (half Saudi Arabian half Belgian). If you want to read more diverse stories like Sara’s, subscribe and get The Half-Child delivered straight to your inbox every
week now and then.