Does Hiring for 'Culture Fit' Perpetuate Bias?

Two HR experts debate the issue.

By Mel Hennigan and Lindsay Evans October 31, 2018
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Hiring bias is hiding beneath the cloak of company culture.

When successful tech companies popularized corporate culture as an asset to be fostered and shaped about 15 years ago, it didn’t take long for “culture fit” to become the new jargon used for hiring decisions that are based on personality traits. Considering culture fit as part of the overall package is a good thing for companies that have taken the time to carefully define and weigh the cultural components of the hiring decision. 

But few companies have gone through the rigor of making their “culture fit” objective and measurable. Rather, HR professionals and hiring managers have simply adopted a new term for explaining hiring rationale that otherwise might be classified as invalid. 

“I’ll know the right candidate when I meet him,” they’ll say. Or, “We didn’t click. I don’t think that candidate will fit our culture.” Statements like these indicate that the hiring decision is based on a subjective assessment more than on the candidate’s ability to deliver results.

If hiring managers define culture fit in terms of personality traits, favoring certain job candidates because they “are friendly” or “have a good attitude,” those managers hinder their organization’s ability to innovate because of its homogenous workforce. Conversely, hiring managers who describe their culture in qualitative terms, such as “low structure” or “high autonomy with a complex matrix,” have a better chance of mapping the skills and abilities of a diverse set of people into their culture.

Similarly, if culture fit accounts for only 10 percent of a hiring decision, and the other 90 percent is based on skills and abilities, candidates who represent diversity have a better chance of being selected than if culture fit is 75 percent of the decision.

Companies that do a good job of leveraging culture fit in making high-quality hires do so by acknowledging and objectifying the culture and making it mappable to specific skills, abilities, values and motivators of candidates. This can be done on a score card, just as knowledge, skills and abilities are measured. 

For example, if it is known that the corporate culture values employees’ relationship-building skills, this should be assessed on the candidate score card. If it is not assessed, a candidate who comes off as timid in the interview but has a knack for building strong relationships quietly may be dismissed by hiring managers on the assumption that the candidate won’t fit with the extroverted culture. 

Many companies have recognized the value of diverse hiring, and several are making great strides in combatting bias. But not everyone is there yet. The companies at the forefront of effecting change through diversity and inclusion are usually large employers, because they have more resources to allocate to such efforts. 

However, large employers make up only a small percentage of U.S. companies. Of the 5.6 million U.S. employers in 2016, 89 percent had fewer than 20 workers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Annual Survey of Entrepreneurs. 

That’s not to say that small businesses categorically promote bias. But small businesses have fewer resources for such efforts as training for unconscious bias. And, until bias awareness and education make their way into the smaller (and larger) operations that need them, companies and candidates alike will miss out as hiring managers overlook qualified, diverse applicants.

Mel Hennigan, SHRM-SCP, is vice president of people for Symplicity Corp. in Arlington, Va. She is a member of the Society for Human Resource Management Special Expertise Panel on Talent Acquisition.

Assessing candidates for culture fit helps ensure their success.

Human capital has a direct impact on an organization’s financial performance, research shows. The people within an organization can provide a competitive advantage—or a disadvantage. Therefore, making the right hiring decisions is critical.  

As a talent acquisition professional, I believe the interview process should capture a multifaceted view of the candidate. Candidate evaluation should be based on two key factors: what people can do and how they will go about doing it. 

The “what” component is usually found on the candidate’s resume. What are the skills, knowledge and experiences this person will bring to the team? The “how” component, however, is less evident, which is why few companies hire based on the resume alone. 

The “how” is best assessed through what is commonly described as “culture fit.” This fit assessment considers a candidate’s attitude, motivation and values, and whether she is aligned with the culture. The style and approach required to be successful at one organization may not transfer to another. For example, some organizations operate by empowering the team, requiring individuals to take a consensus-based approach. Other organizations may lean heavily on hierarchy, allowing those who can navigate power dynamics to be more likely to thrive. 

Google, a leader in the use of people analytics, has made significant changes to its interview process. It has banned its infamous brainteasers and promotes the use of structured interviews. However, despite a clear willingness to change, the company still assesses job candidates for “Googleyness,” which it defines as someone who is comfortable with ambiguity, is action-oriented and has a collaborative nature. This signals that there are factors beyond skills and knowledge that are important to the hiring decision. 

If we don’t consider culture fit, we would focus solely on the individual, disregarding the context in which he needs to perform. Studies show that employees who share their company’s values and fit with the culture have higher job satisfaction, superior job performance and greater retention. 

In using culture fit, it’s critical to define and create shared meaning among interviewers of what this “fit” means. A lack of consensus renders “culture fit” at risk of being misused in the candidate evaluation. It can become code for “this person isn’t like me.” The benefits of diversity within teams are proven, and exclusionary hiring decisions can subtly undermine a firm’s diversity objectives. 

However, we can’t eliminate the relevance of culture fit in hiring decisions simply because it can be misused. Instead, we must be vigilant, ensuring it is well-defined and using it to enhance the quality of hiring decisions. Our company, Chatham Financial, endeavors to create shared meaning among employees by defining its culture through a few foundational concepts, such as the importance of establishing trust. 

Has culture fit been misused by interviewers to cover their bias? Yes. Have talent acquisition leaders and hiring managers allowed this to go unchecked? Yes. Should culture fit be eliminated from consideration in the hiring decision? No. 

It would be unwise to remove consideration of how a person will function in your particular work environment. Hiring decisions should be based on more than just a resume. They should consider people as a whole, both their experiences and how they work.  

Lindsay Evans is director of talent at Chatham Financial, based in Kennett Square, Pa. She is a member of the Society for Human Resource Management Special Expertise Panel on HR Technology and Management.

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