Airbnb allegedly asked an interview candidate, “When you walk into a room, what would be your theme song?” Companies, especially startups, have quickly adopted the idea of asking candidates questions that will assess ‘culture fit’. The only problem is that some interview questions designed to assess cultural fit can actually act as a veil for discrimination and unconscious bias.
In one study of 40 elite banking, consulting, and law firms, Professor Lauren Rivera of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management found that the most common way an interview candidate was evaluated was based on their similarity to the interviewer. One hiring professional described it as the Stranded In the Airport Test: “Would I want to be stuck in an airport in a snowstorm with them? And if I’m on a business trip for two days and I have to have dinner with them, is this the kind of person I enjoy hanging with?”
Hiring people that align with your culture and values isn’t the problem, it’s the way people have come to interpret what “culture fit” actually means. In this guide, we’ll look at how cultural fit differs from organisational fit, and what you can do to prevent your own personal preferences from getting in the way of hiring the best candidate.
What is cultural fit?
Cultural fit is when an employee’s own behaviours, culture and values fit with a company’s culture and behaviour. The issues emerge when individuals prioritise their personal social fit over what value each candidate has to the company as a whole.
Cultural fit vs. company values
In organisational psychology, person-organisation fit is described by Adrian Furnham as the “congruence between the norms and values of the organisation and those of the person”. In practice, those norms and company values are hard to define. One of the main reasons is because the relationship between a person and an organisation is dynamic. If we see organisations as a large, structured group of people, we can see how the behaviour of one person in the group impacts the rest, and also how group norms influence individual behaviour.
After the Libor rate fixing scandal, the subsequent Salz review revealed an incredibly toxic culture at Barclays. Organisational norms and values favoured short term financial performance, which was reflected in the employee bonus system. These incentives led people to continuously bend rules to the extent where cultural norms were directly at ends with written values.
Cultural fit is important, because if an employee feels that they are aligned with their organisation, they are more likely to:
- Stay with the company for longer
- Have better relationships with their peers
- Be more productive employees
However, we need to draw a line between values and personality when speaking about person-organisation fit.
Cultural fit and unconscious biases
Hiring based on culture fit might become a vehicle for discrimination, either purposefully or accidentally. If you hire people who you think are ‘like you’ and the rest of your organisation, you might end up with a uniform workforce. A foreign candidate might be rejected because she doesn’t ‘fit in’, and while this might be true, it fuels the problem of marginalising minorities in the workforce. Practically, diversity is important in better serving the needs of your customers, who are probably similarly diverse.
Shared values ensure that people can work in the same direction. No one can argue a case against employees who truly believe in the company’s values. Let’s consider values on an individual level, and how that might make us more predisposed to certain types of organisations. Eduard Spranger, a German philosopher, defined the following value attitudes:
- The Theoretical — whose dominant interest is the discovery of truth
- The Economic — who is interested in what is useful
- The Aesthetic — whose highest value is form and harmony
- The Social — whose highest value is love of people
- The Political — whose interest is primarily in power
- The Religious — whose highest value is unity
As we go through the list, we might have automatically assigned potential careers for each of those personality types. For example, the Theoretical would probably be a good scientist.
It makes sense that people with certain values are attracted to organisations that share those values. However, this becomes complex when we have preconceived ideas of the personalities that go with those values. You might expect scientists to be introverted and ‘square’, as the stereotype goes. Those prejudices might then also be shared in organisational culture.
Examples of cultural fit going wrong
If we consider personality as being separate from values, homogeneity in an organisation is not necessarily a good thing. Groupthink is a phenomenon that describes what happens in a decision making process when a desire to conform leads to poor decisions being made.
The Bay of Pigs disaster under JFK’s presidency was attributed to groupthink, and even though some of the smartest minds in the world were involved in making the decision, the end result was dysfunctional. Groupthink occurs because people refrain from criticising a line of argument and voicing dissent in favour of keeping group harmony.
Hire with company values in mind
We’ll leave you with some practical advice on the right way to hire for culture fit:
Communicate your company culture
Make sure that hiring managers and potential employees understand your company values, and how they relate to the company’s overall goals and mission. Instead of relying on subjective judgements, use surveys and structured interviews to assess candidates for specific traits and values. This will give you a way to compare people side-by-side without letting personal preferences interfere with your decision making.
Ask hiring managers to justify their decisions
If someone is eliminated from the hiring process because they were a bad culture fit, it’s important to understand what that means. Ask hiring managers and other decision makers to justify their decision:
- Why was a candidate eliminated?
- Which company value did they fail to live up to?
- Did their education or personal interests influence the decision?
Introduce unconscious bias training
All of us fall victim to unconscious bias throughout our daily lives. Training managers to recognise and eliminate unconscious bias can not only help when it comes to identifying a good cultural fit, it can potentially prevent other issues like favouritism from showing up in the workplace. Being aware of our own bias won’t work 100% of the time, but it does make managers more aware, which can lead to more conscious decision making in future.
How Facebook is hiring for company values
Facebook is perhaps the most well-known proponent of this shift, and have famously prohibited the term “culture fit” from being used when providing feedback on prospective candidates. Instead the company assesses interviewees based on their alignment to their five core business values;
- Be Bold
- Focus on Impact
- Move Fast
- Be Open
- Build Social Value
This is done in order to remove bias from the interview process. The term “culture fit” has almost become a weapon that interviewers use to shoot down potential candidates, deeming would-be suitable workers culturally unfit. Worse still, this isn’t even always intentional, and has instead become an “unconscious bias”.
Cultural fit can still be useful, we just have to be sure that everyone involved in the hiring process is using the same definition. When we put our personal preferences aside, it’s possible to make hiring decisions that aren’t influenced by gender, race and nationality. The result is a more diverse and co-operative workplace that relies on shared values, not physical, social and cultural similarities.