The Road to Hell: Culture Fit

First some context. Have a look at these graphs provided by Fortune magazine.

In addition to this, women CEOs are still more likely to make less than their male counterparts. The predominant (white) culture in tech often poses a hostile environment to even speaking about diversity — especially if you’re a minority. There’s this cleverly designed graph giving a dynamic visual of the current state of diversity in Silicon Valley which is abysmal and discouraging if you don’t fit the cultural profile.

This is the context in which the issue of culture “fit” as a hiring criteria is being discussed. Culture fit, as an idea, is a real thing. Companies have cultures which they use to foster cooperation and drive progress. But the question people are usually asking when this comes up is whether this is a fair criteria to judge job worthiness in an industry that struggles with diversity and inclusivity.

It’s no secret that tech industry demographics are fairly white and male. Culture that is white and/or male is as legitimate a development as a culture that is black and/or female. I want to emphasize that when people describe the industry as such, they’re not usually trying to say that the culture is bad *because of* those demographics, or that something is wrong with that group of people. But we ought to be willing to investigate what’s really happening when companies say “culture fit” in this context.

Let’s be honest: without diversity, the very words “cultural fit” seems to amount to little more than other kinds of discrimination which are already illegal — this despite great intentions and despite culture fit being an admirable goal. There’s a serious risk in this practice, where the consequences of those risks are born by those deemed to be outsiders, that warrants our suspicion and concern when it comes to hiring practices.

Google and the other tech giants have made a valid point by saying it’s harder for a company their size to move the needle on diversity by even 1% due to their size and so it’s important for new companies to begin thinking about that right away. But in discussing fairness, it seems totally unfair that start-ups carry the burden. Leading companies should …lead. Plus Google hadn’t really started keeping track of this data until very recently — and it’s been an even shorter amount of time since they’ve made that data public.

So then …how are we to even begin using such vague criteria as “culture fit” to determine job worthiness if the industry struggles with diversity? I mean, doesn’t this lack of diversity show a kind a lack of success at being inclusive?

This topic has been discussed in other quarters so my personal experience isn’t novel. In the past year, at least I’ve heard the legitimacy of hiring based on culture fit questioned, and I think that’s good. I said it earlier, but there is such a thing as culture fit and we all want to work in a place where the work and people are pleasant enough to grab lunch with or to be considered as part of our extended families (*I* like that kind of environment, at least). Part of what’s difficult to dislike about the term is that we can all identify with the idea of creating harmonious work environments, which means being careful of the people we allow inside. I think it’s great that companies strive to create familial, but professional, culture.

The problems here are the good intentions that inevitably pave the road to hell though. I might interview with a hiring manager and when he says “culture fit” he most definitely means “someone I would enjoy a beer with”. Except …the only people he ever enjoys beers with look like he does, laughs at the same jokes and probably went to the same school. Again, the industry demographics are pretty damning when we place “fit” in the proper context. I am, by default, rarely a cultural fit. I *am* from a different culture, and my value might be discounted because of it. It’s difficult to tell how this is any different or better than discriminating by race or gender. What exactly would it mean for an employer to reject an applicant based on “fit”?

Plus, companies rarely define “culture fit” in any job description.What we see most in job listings are skill lists and requests for certifications (degrees, diplomas, etc). So culture is usually conspicuously absent from the hiring process. That is, until you get to the interview, that phase where paper skills meet physical appearance. Suddenly a different kind of judgement of qualification is made. Is it the physical appearance then that causes the discrimination? The cold handshake? The smile or lack thereof? How is culture being extracted from this meeting in a way that allows for fair judgement of job qualification? I’d be willing to bet that 99% of applicants are just like me: trying hard to meet employer expectations which leaves little room for simply being who we are. I am not my job qualifications, handshake, or nervous smile. It’s really hard to tell how this translates into sizing me up for culture “fit”.

Ideally, a judgement about cultural fit is something done during a trial period, where employers and employees alike get to see job performance over the course of, say, one month. Apprenticeships and training programs come to mind. These are good situations to assess culture fit as they contextualize the interactions between employer and employee while exposing patterns of behavior.

Of course it’s often impractical to do trial runs with an employee like this, because the average company just isn’t going to pay or spend the time for this kind of screening process. I’ll also credit the tech industry for being much more open to this hiring process. I’ve at least heard of weeklong interviews and apprenticeship programs which do exactly this. I hope to see much more of this as I venture deeper into the industry. That said, determining cultural fit requires a more elaborate hiring process than most companies undertake.

Here’s what I know about culture: healthy ones are resilient, able to absorb change and even welcome it in order to develop the group beyond it’s inherently isolationist bounds. This means that diversity is crucial for survival of any group. Not to get too scientific, but if one believes in evolution, then they believe, by extension, that diversity is the key to survival. Homogeneity kills. So culture isn’t some isolated bubble we seal our companies within, allowing only things which align with our own ideas. Good culture is aware that the life of the group depends greatly on it’s ability to be inclusive. When “fit” is used to exclude, it’s not culture that’s being preserved. It’s the status quo.

So what can be done?

I’m no stranger to discrimination of all kinds. Aside from my demographic attributes, I’m assertive (a quality strongly disliked in female candidates) Couple that with the fact that I’m black (a quality stereotyped as aggressive *due to being the latter two*) and I’m queer (fitting neither the lesbian/gay binary). People generally don’t know what to assume about me, which can be somewhat amusing when my welfare doesn’t hang in the balance. I’m confusing for them. Half the time this works directly to my benefit, but for the other half I’m never even considered, regardless of skill qualifications (and as I grow older, my veteran professional status also works against me; I’m either too experienced or not senior enough).

As someone who has done the hiring, the process can be much more straightforward and this gives me hope for the future of the industry. There are great managers and hiring firms out there doing hard, but much needed work. But that’s usually because they aren’t relying on “fit” to make decisions. Culture “fit” isn’t even a necessary criteria. Good cultures enable assimilation.

Every interview is an act, by both the company and the employee, as we put on our best faces in order to make the best impressions. Merit-based hiring is ideal and has it’s own flaws, but at least steers closer to fairness than the ambiguity culture “fit”. Having background in the work counts, various certificates of accomplishments count, and a pleasant personality count. But they can’t give a complete story. There’s risk involved for everyone at the table and the task as a manager is to minimize risk, but also to maximize payoff for the company — two different, though related, things. There’s no such thing as a perfect applicant and no such thing as a free meal. Tech companies need to be more willing to go through the elaborate and lengthy employment process with their candidates.

Focus more on an applicants adaptability, which can be judged by their past experiences and a general willingness to try something new and uncomfortable without causing undue stress on the team.

The bottom line in hiring is that the work can usually be learned, but a quality applicant is a precious thing not to be judged by a short achievement list, opinions about their culture, or left to market whims.

We can never get to a place where “fit” is a fair criteria if companies aren’t being inclusive (diversity). A healthy culture will have few problems assimilating good candidates from diverse backgrounds.  I know it’s counter-intuitive to think of culture fit as a way to be inclusive rather than exclusive, but I think when it’s done right the results speak for themselves. Culture fit isn’t something we judge at a job interview. It’s something we judge by the company’s commitment to diversity.

EDIT: My last draft snuck out ahead of the final, sorry! Edited for clarity and good measure.

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