When Hiring for Culture Fit, Make Sure You Aren’t Sacrificing Diversity

Finding an employee who is a good match for your team is essential – but looking exclusively for people who blend with your company’s culture may do more harm than good.interview

If you work in human resources, you’ve no doubt heard the term “culture fit” many times. It’s the HR buzzword for employees whose personal values, attitudes, and ethics are aligned with those of your company and its team members.

Employees who are good culture fits are those who mesh well both professionally and personally – the idea being that a team of employees who believe in your company mission and get along well enough to grab post-work drinks together will be more productive.

A seemingly ideal method for building collaborative teams, the “culture fit” concept gained praise quickly and fell out of favor nearly as quickly when its weaknesses became apparent. In 2015, the Harvard Business Review published tips on hiring for culture fit – less than a year later, the publication featured an article warning that hiring for culture fit can thwart a company’s diversity efforts.

It’s a concerning issue to HR professionals who recognize the importance of diversity for strengthening a team’s skill set, expanding the talent pool, and improving employee retention. The slippery slope of hiring for culture fit makes it imperative that companies learn to cut it out of the hiring strategy and replace it with methods that support diversity and inclusion.

If You’re Not Careful, Hiring for Culture Fit Allows Bias to Sneak In

When not done carefully and consciously, hiring for culture fit leaves room for bias in the vetting and interview process, and can even enable biases to take the lead in hiring decisions.

In theory, assessing for culture fit should help narrow your scope to bring on a particular kind of team member: one who works similarly to your existing team. The challenge comes when hiring managers subconsciously take those similarities too far, hiring employees who not only hold similar values and work styles, but who also look alike, think alike, and have comparable education and geographic backgrounds.

The result is a severe lack of diversity, as recruiters continue to bring on new hires who have traits and experiences that are eerily similar to those of the hiring manager and the existing team. Since there is no clear-cut way to define whether someone is a good culture fit, hiring managers must beware of slipping into making offers based on gut instinct rather than evidence.

Leaning too heavily on culture fit also offers a broad and vague excuse for rejecting a candidate. A candidate may be discriminated against based on skin color or age, but that’s hard to prove when the company claims the applicant just wasn’t a good “culture fit.” It’s difficult to define what constitutes rejecting a candidate on the basis of poor culture fit; leaving companies to slide (often unintentionally) into murky territory, creating the perfect cover for subconscious bias.

Subconscious bias is particularly damaging in industries with already low diversity levels. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the American construction industry has one of the lowest percentages of female employees – women account for just 9% of the total workforce. The manufacturing industry is improving, with about 28% of its workforce female, but still has a ways to go to reach a diverse balance.

The representation of racial minorities (Blacks, Asians, and Hispanics) is better: around 36% in the construction industry and 32% in manufacturing. Still, the numbers leave much room for improvement, as these same racial minorities make up an ever-growing percentage of the American population.

The lack of diversity in these industries hinders innovation and creativity, while the subconscious biases of hiring managers severely limit the talent pool and reduce access to skilled candidates, which is mainly troublesome in industries like construction that are already suffering from an ongoing skilled labor shortage.

Hiring for diversity allows you to access the best of the best, from across all backgrounds and demographics. Diversity also impacts a company’s bottom line. Discrimination-free workplaces are more likely to retain employees, preventing the huge costs that come with high turnover rates.

Avoiding the Pitfalls of Culture Fit

Some leading companies have acknowledged the danger of hiring exclusively for culture fit and have taken active measures to avoid the risks of unconscious bias.

Facebook has made its “Managing Unconscious Bias” guidelines available through a series of video training modules. Facebook has been releasing its diversity numbers since the video modules were introduced, the latest of which shows positive diversity shifts are happening, albeit very, very slowly.

Social-media management platform Buffer has also taken a public stand against the risky language of culture fit. The company says negligent culture fit hiring can lead to employment decisions based on shared experience rather than other merits. That means that a white male college-educated construction manager is more likely to hire another white male college graduate than he is a young Latino woman who has gone through a high-school apprenticeship program.

The less we have in common with people, the more we subconsciously assume they would not “fit” into our team environment. Instead of culture fit, Buffer now uses two alternate terms to guide its hiring process: cultural contribution and values fit.

How to Hire for Both Diversity and a Team Fit

Reviewing job ads for inclusivity is another positive step. Candidates of different sexes, ethnicities, and backgrounds look for different language in job ads, so the titles and words you use can be surprisingly isolating. Diversity, of course, goes far beyond hiring women and people of color – it also means hiring people of diverse beliefs, education levels, and sexual orientations. Being mindful of all the ways diversity is articulated will help you better build a diverse team.

To improve your diversity efforts in the short term, you should consider promoting job postings on social media, where you’re more likely to reach a higher number of female candidates. Consider educating your HR and recruiting on the benefits of hiring for diversity, and task them to keep on top of the diversity regulations set by the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission.

When reviewing applications and conducting interviews, hiring managers should look for workplace skills and experiences rather than name, gender, and alma mater. In order to assess whether someone will fit in with the current team, try Buffer’s method: ask candidates what they can contribute to your team, and question their specific workplace-related values and goals rather than their personal beliefs.

Diversity and inclusion efforts don’t stop after onboarding. Once team members are hired, mentorship programs have been proven to boost diversity by up to 24%. With hiring methods designed to support diversity, you can build teams that are stronger and more innovative, expand your recruitment efforts to keep a full staff, and lower turnover to save costs for the company.

Ensuring your team members are compatible with the company culture is essential, but it’s something that shouldn’t get in the way of forming a diverse, highly skilled team.

Chris Lennon is Vice President of Product Management at BirdDogHR. Chris is an active participant in the talent management community bringing over 18 years of experience to BirdDogHR. He has presented at numerous industry events and has been quoted as an industry expert in leading publications like Talent Management magazine, CLO magazine, New Talent Times, TLNT and HR Bartender.