Multi-ethnic Hands In Thumbs Up

When hiring for cultural fit is the wrong fit

It's great in theory, but the enemy of diversity in practice

Written by Professor Gary Martin FAIM
4 minute read
Multi-ethnic Hands In Thumbs Up

Across workplaces of every shape and size, it remains fashionable to talk up the importance of cultural fit during the recruitment of new staff.

It is a preoccupation based on the idea that having new employees who mesh well with existing employees will make a workplace more inviting.

The only problem is that not everyone is being invited.

At a time when there are calls for workplaces to become more diverse in their composition, many experts believe our obsession with hiring for a cultural fit is the enemy of diversity.

Hiring those who have the right cultural fit is one of those concepts that is great in theory.

Once linked to the idea of recruiting employees who would readily align with an organisation’s purpose and values, the concept’s original interpretation had a lot of merit.

After all, most employers want to recruit people who will get along with others and end up being part of a team rowing a business in the same direction.

However, the original meaning of the concept, while well intentioned, appears to have veered way off track and is being watered down or, as some would say, has completely lost its way.

There is a growing school of thought that cultural fit has become less about whether an individual may be an organisational fit – someone who is aligned with the purpose and values of an organisation – and more about whether they are a personal fit.

The fact is many view the cultural fit as equivalent to hiring the people you would like to have a beer or coffee with; someone who you would happily spend time with.

This means recruiting only those who are so similar with the existing cohort that an immediate sense of comfort and familiarity with others is achieved.

Carbon-copy recruits will end up acting the same, thinking the same, liking the same things and perhaps even dressing the same.

Disturbingly, the term cultural fit has been weaponised to eliminate those who may stand out like a sore thumb in a sea of workplace sameness – those who do not fit the existing workplace mould.

Hiring for a cultural fit has become a recruitment practice riddled with biases and limitations in the way we view job applicants who come across as being different.

When someone is told they are not the right fit, it is usually because of their gender, race, ethnicity, ability, age, sexual orientation and gender identity along with socioeconomic status, personality and even life experiences.

So strong is our current delusion with hiring for the right cultural fit that it has become a powerful oppositional force in our efforts to build true diversity in our workplaces.

Yet achieving a difference in the composition of a workforce is regularly lauded as the key to more effective problem solving, enhanced productivity and a much greater capacity to innovate.

More diverse teams are thought to outperform less diverse ones while too much similarity can lead to teams that make poor decisions, particularly ones that are complex to make.

We blindly hire for a cultural fit because of something called the “looking glass merit”.

“Looking glass merit” is a phenomenon that sees interviewers look for attributes and experiences in candidates that make them feel good about themselves.

While all of the usual suspects such as positive alignment with a job candidate’s gender, age or socio-economic status may come into play, other common life experiences can also prove to tilt the recruitment scales.

It may be a job applicant’s birthplace that resonates, or the school they attended, the fact they are a sports lover or the colour of their skin which ends up giving an individual a leg-up in the recruitment process.
We tend to favour candidates who remind us of ourselves or appear most familiar to us.

For a workplace that seeks diversity, getting caught in the cultural fit trap that results in like-for-like hires can be detrimental.

It is the very reason why it is time to purge an increasingly maligned cultural fit tactic from our hiring practices and replacing it with a concept that will better serve and support our diversity agenda.

This includes replacing cultural fit with “cultural add”.

Instead of finding a new recruit who will fit nicely within our existing culture, we ought to look to those in the job market who are bit different and may add to the culture instead of reinforcing the status quo.

Culture add paves the way for organisations to engage candidates from varying backgrounds and with different experiences.

Hiring staff who add to culture rather than simply fit in can help to eradicate blinds spots in a business and assist with pushing boundaries and expanding horizons.

Building a workplace culture that is both diverse and inclusive rarely happens without a plan.

While removing the necessity for new hires to demonstrate some form of cultural fit and replacing it with the more inclusive concept of cultural add will not automatically create a workplace with a difference, it is a step in the right diversity direction.