Is ‘Culture Fit’ Perpetuating Bias?

When I interviewed for my first job at a market research firm in D.C., I distinctly remember them asking questions around ‘culture fit.’ My future boss asked me to take a personality test, while the HR manager asked which values I shared with the company. I later found out that my boss and I were […]

Culture fit, Hardly

When I interviewed for my first job at a market research firm in D.C., I distinctly remember them asking questions around ‘culture fit.’ My future boss asked me to take a personality test, while the HR manager asked which values I shared with the company. I later found out that my boss and I were both ENFJs, and the Vice President of HR said she felt like I would be a great fit for that team and the office. Everyone on the team, including my boss and the HR Manager, was a Caucasian female who seemed to have a direct but friendly demeanor. They all enjoyed team lunches and happy hours outside of work but also worked overtime and felt the need to go above and beyond. My only difference was that I am Black. We were a culture fit and 90% of the time we worked well together.  

  

Recently, there has been an uptick in articles exploring the ways in which ‘culture fit’ actually perpetuates bias in the workplace. The worry is that in industries that are struggling to diversify, searching for candidates who fit the current culture leads to more of the same: i.e. white men. But I’m curious, is there an inherent problem with the idea of ‘culture fit,’ or just the implementation of it? If so, how can we improve and change the narrative?

Perpetuating biases

Culture fit, Hardly

According to Jeremy Turpen, executive recruiter in Silicon Valley, ‘culture fit’ creates a clan mentality where hiring managers only seek out their own kind. This mentality focuses on nurturing the already existing tribe and therefore fails to bring in diverse people. He finds this evident in how hiring managers have been trained to scan for ivy league schools and markers of privilege. Even if you are a diverse person who makes it through this initial scan, you can be weeded out during the interviewing process if you aren’t able to quickly create rapport with the interviewer over shared experiences. 

The Intercept highlights this particular kind of situation in an article about a Black woman who applied for a position at Facebook. Even though she was exceptionally qualified, she was passed over for the job and the company told her they were looking for a strong ‘culture fit.’ In the article, she adds that she felt the company did not prioritize her application and that the only other Black person she saw at Facebook was the receptionist.

 

In a Medium article, Stephanie Barnes goes so far as to say “Culture Fits Only” is the Jim Crow 2.0 “Whites Only” sign. She states that ‘culture fit’ has been a way for companies to hide racism. But race is not the only basis on which ‘culture fit’ potentially discriminates. It can also perpetuate sexism, homophobia, ageism, ableism, and more. This twisted version of culture fit becomes clear when hiring managers state that the candidate had the right skills or had great references, but they just wouldn’t fit with the team. When asked to elaborate, they can’t come up with a clear answer as to why they don’t match the company culture, it’s just kind of a feeling. 

An alternative viewpoint

Culture fit, Hardly

These articles are clear examples of how ‘culture fit’ has been distorted. But could it be used effectively to weed people in rather than weeding people out? ‘Culture fit’ often brings up ideas around being of the same ethnic culture, socioeconomic status, personality type. Overall, people think of it as hiring who you’d want to grab a beer with. However, this definition is skewed because it focuses on individual cultural values rather than company ones.

Fortunately, the articles mentioned above provide some hope by illuminating a similarity in companies that use culture fit inappropriately. Most of these organizations don’t have defined values. When companies do not define their culture clearly, they risk perpetuating a homogenized culture. In other words, if recruiters aren’t clear on company culture, they revert to their personal culture to find a match. 

As Stephanie Barnes states, “the purpose of company culture is to ensure that everyone is on the same page in terms of mission, values, goals, attitudes and practices in an organization.”

What if instead of asking themselves “do they look like me or have the same college experience as me?” hiring managers asked “does this person thrive in a company that encourages outside-the-box thinking or an entrepreneurial spirit?” Effective culture fit is about helping candidates decipher if this company will help them flourish based on the work-related values. 

The alternative is that companies solely hire based on skills. What happens when company culture is implicit rather than explicit? If you’re very capable and hardworking but prefer structure and instruction, will you excel with a hands-off managerial style? Plenty of companies pride themselves on hosting quarterly company outings and offering unlimited vacation. But if you prefer educational stipends and performance bonuses, will you stay there for long? 

Hardly’s social impact

Culture fit, Hardly

What if ‘culture fit’ was not only neutral, but actually worked against prejudiced hiring practices? Hardly stands firmly against homogenization in the workplace and strives to promote diverse perspectives and inclusion. The difference is, we believe ‘culture fit’ could help us in the fight against perpetuating bias in the workplace.

Hardly’s platform uses blind hiring practices until after the candidate and company match. While we are still figuring out the balance between hiding too much or too little, the goal is for employers and employees to match without revealing factors such as age, race, gender and even which university you attended, which often lead to bias hiring. Unlike LinkedIn which requires a picture of oneself, Hardly allows users to express themselves in a more robust way. Instead of focusing on ones background, user profiles showcase their future. The platform utilizes assessments to analyze work-related values. Values link to organizational structure preferences, management styles, priorities, and more. This ultimately helps candidates and companies select one another based on complementary factors. The goal is for them to align on values, goals, and expectations rather than on superficial markers.  

There’s one more factor that differentiates Hardly’s use of culture fit from companies who select only like-minded people. We help hiring managers focus on who is complementary rather than the same. While we do believe candidates and companies should share overarching values and goals, differences can be advantageous. That is part of being the right fit too! For example, it’s important to balance out risk-takers with risk-averse individuals in an organization. If you lean too much in one direction it could cause problems. It’s better to have both.

Conclusion

Let us know what information you would want disclosed or hidden, and how you think companies can fight workplace bias. We invite you to tell us stories of how the hiring process has included or excluded you in the past. As always, your feedback is an important part of our growth and development!

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Hardly is a team dynamics platform that matches people with teams/companies based on both skill and culture fit.