Is This the End of Hiring for Culture Fit?

Written by Michael Catford

February 14, 2018

It’s prohibited at Pandora. Forbidden at Facebook. Atlassian won’t allow it.

Over recent years many tech companies have seen ‘culture fit’ as the single most important checkbox when interviewing new hires. But there has recently been a trend away from hiring for culture, and it has started at the very top of the tech tree.

Some of the industry’s biggest players are now forgoing culture fit analysis in interviews, some going so far as to ban the phrase from within their four walls. But how did a hiring policy that was so recently ubiquitous fall out of favour so quickly?

The problem with hiring for culture fit

The problem, as highlighted by those who are turning their back on the culture fit concept, is that the approach can fuel unconscious bias. It’s a sad fact that we humans are attracted to people who look, act and think like ourselves, and generally dismiss those who are different. This hard-wiring of our brains can unfortunately present itself as unconscious and unintentional prejudice, and perhaps explains why racism is such a difficult cultural phenomenon to eradicate.

Facebook, Pandora, Atlassian et al. found that when interviewers were presented with a candidate who differed enough from themselves to trigger this unconscious bias, labelling the interviewee as a bad culture fit was a simple and effective way to ensure that their resume was placed in the ‘no’ tray. In some organisations the phrase became almost weaponised. Don’t like the cut of an interviewee’s jib? They’re obviously a bad culture fit.

The truth behind this unintended prejudice is in the numbers. ‘White’ sounding names get 50% more callbacks than ‘black’ sounding names, and blind interviews increase the likelihood of a woman being hired by between 25% and 46%.

And a focus on culture fit is petrol on the fire of unconscious bias.

Culture fit is by its very nature hard to define. It relies on gut feeling and instinct – subjective and all too human measures of how an interviewee might fit into your organisation, which often disregard what the individual could actually add to the environment, should they be given the opportunity. The companies above saw that hiring for culture fit was leading to homogenous cultures devoid of diversity.

The next question is obvious – what does it matter? Is diversity all that important in a workplace setting anyway?

The hard numbers on diversity

Yes, diversity does matter. And not simply in a kumbaya, hands across the water, we’re all in this together sort of way. There are tangible – and honestly quite astonishing – business benefits to a diverse company culture that have motivated the likes of Facebook to fundamentally rethink their policies.

An MIT study showed that teams with an equal number of men and women earn 41% more revenue that all-male or all-female teams. Racially diverse teams, a McKinsey study found, outperform homogenous teams markedly. The study of 366 public companies found that those ranked in the top quartile for ethnic diversity were 35% more likely to have financial returns above the national industry medians. Gender diverse companies were 15% more likely to see above-average returns.

Why is this the case? Well, diverse teams bring diverse insights, points of view and ways of thinking to the table. A diverse team is able to tackle any business problem in a multitude of ways, allowing leaders to pick the very best approach from those proffered by the team. McKinsey also listed customer orientation and employee satisfaction as major benefits enjoyed by a diverse organisation.

What’s in a name?

But does that mean that the concept of culture fit is dead in the water? Not necessarily. In this way Australian tech powerhouse Atlassian make for a particularly interesting case study.

The main issue with using culture fit as an interview parameter is its indefinability. Even for its most devoted exponents, the concept of company culture is hazy at best. But that’s not to say that it lacks credibility entirely. At its purest, the intention of hiring for culture fit is about ensuring that everyone in an organisation is rowing in the same direction; that the principles that have contributed to the success of an organisation will continue to be adhered to by new employees.

For this reason Atlassian were hesitant to toss away the concept altogether. Instead, they went for an old-fashioned rebrand. They would no longer hire for culture fit, what with its unconscious bias. Instead, they’d hire for ‘values fit’.

Atlassian were searching for something more objective than culture fit; something that removed the possibility of unconscious bias, but that still ensured that an interviewee would work well within their organisation. So they totally redesigned their interview process, training interviewers on unconscious bias and structured interviewing. They created a questionnaire that revolved around their company values, all of which had been clearly and carefully defined.

The removal of unconscious bias from the hiring process resulted in Atlassian becoming a far more diverse organisation. While 26.8% of Atlassian leadership is currently female, the hiring rate for female leaders in the last 12 months has jumped to 36%. Similar improvement can be found in almost every department across the organisation. And in an unprecedented step, Atlassian have published their diversity numbers on their website for the world to see.

Fostering a diverse culture

The simple act of hiring more women or minorities won’t automatically make your business better – you need to offer an environment in which a diverse team can thrive. Payment processing service Bambora is all too aware of this, and puts real effort into fostering such a culture.

“The technical team has a fair representation of women employees,” says Jason Fischer, Head of Development. This is the result of a conscious effort to up the company’s diversity. But this effort doesn’t end when the new employee enters the office for the first time. “The management goes the extra mile to accommodate working mothers. We focus on giving our staff work/life balance, particularly the female employees.”

While there may be less of a focus on culture fit during the interview phase, that’s not to say that company culture should be ignored entirely.

A conscious effort against unconscious bias

Building a diverse team won’t happen organically. It simply isn’t how we humans are wired. But the business benefits of becoming such an inclusive workplace have been writ large.

Whether it’s via a simple Atlassian-style rebrand or a more comprehensive Facebook-style overhaul, lessening the importance of ‘culture fit’ in your interview process should enable you to enjoy the benefits of diversity. Sure, it won’t entirely remove your interviewers’ innate unconscious bias, but it will certainly have you heading in the right direction.

Written by Michael Catford

February 14, 2018