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How to keep ‘culture fit’ from killing workplace diversity

Sharon Florentine | Sept. 7, 2017
Workplace culture can be a strong determining factor for success. But emphasising culture fit when hiring can result in an unhealthy monoculture if you aren’t taking steps to foster diversity and inclusion.

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Credit: geralt (CC0)

Culture is an important part of any organization’s strategy for attracting, hiring and retaining top talent, especially as the IT skills gap persists. But emphasizing cultural fit can have an unintended downside: It can undermine your diversity and inclusion efforts.

“Obviously skills and experience are important. So that’s where everyone starts, but once you get past that, what are you focusing on? I bet you hear a lot of tech companies say, ‘culture fit,’” says Ciara Trinidad, head of diversity and inclusion at enterprise hiring software company Lever. “But what does that really mean? Obviously, each company’s culture is different, so that means different things to different people. For the hiring managers who are doing it wrong, it means ‘someone who looks like me.’ It means, ‘someone with the same background as me.’ It means, ‘someone with the same ideas.’”

In other words, if you emphasize culture fit as an important hiring metric, hiring managers, recruiters and HR professionals may hire only candidates who reflect their own “culture,” especially if those gatekeepers to employment are homogeneous. They may also assume that diversity and inclusion are problems that can be fixed quickly and simply.

That’s the wrong approach, and that’s how you end up with a lot of startups and companies with straight, white, cis-gendered males wondering why diversity and inclusion is a problem, Trinidad says, or, as this recent Wired piece shows, simply denying that bias exists.

The emphasis on culture fit can inadvertently push applicants to try to fit in, at the expense of innovation, creative thinking and at great cost to your business, says Chris Nicholson, CEO of artificial intelligence company Skymind.

“Obviously what makes someone a stellar employee at one company isn’t necessarily going to translate to every other company. So, it’s a bit like ‘Moneyball,’ where you’re looking for specific skills, traits, expertise that will fill in where you are lacking,” Nicholson says. “The problem is, most companies are using the wrong ones, and that’s not only hurting them generally, but it also contributes to the lack of diversity and inclusion.”

“Sure, maybe Stanford degrees, tenure at Google, white, male, been-coding-since-childhood works for some companies, but not only are you excluding hundreds, maybe thousands of people with those parameters, everyone else is chasing those folks, too. They’re going to be expensive, they’re going to be unavailable, they’re not going to give you the results you need,” Nicholson says.


What actually works

By focusing on concrete values instead of a vague notion of culture, larger, established organizations are having greater success moving the needle on both culture and diversity and inclusion (D&I), says Anka Wittenberg, chief diversity and inclusion officer and SVP at SAP.


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