Cultural fit and diversity

Something which has become something of an established practice across the tech industry is the “cultural fit” interview. Typically the last stage of a recruitment process, in this interview the candidate meets some people from the business (either their own team or people they will need to collaborate closely with),  who will ask them a few questions mainly to see whether they feel like they can work well together.

I have very mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, in my experience culture is the number one predictor of team performance – having the right group of people working together in the right way will help your team succeed in a way that no amount of metrics, automation or slavish devotion to one agile methodology or another will achieve.

In general I also think that more heads lead to a better answer, so involving more people in the hiring process is fairer and more effective1Although this should be balanced with considerations around candidate experience – unless you’re one of those places which draw in hundreds of applicants motivated to work for you specifically, an over-long recruitment process is a bad idea. The problem comes when every one of those people has an effective veto over hiring someone. Then, instead of making sure more people can speak up for your candidate, you’re putting your hiring process at risk of being sabotaged by more people’s biases.2Check out the Glassdoor page on interviews at Expensify if you want to see how candidates feel about this. It’s not positive.

Here’s the potential issue with cultural fit interviews (and, I suspect, the reason they’re not generally used in public sector hiring with its much greater emphasis on transparency and fairness). It’s much, much harder to nail down precisely what you’re looking for when you ask questions where the point is not necessarily what the candidate says in their answer so much as how they say it. The line between “this person doesn’t approach problems in a way that’s compatible with how we work” and “this person thinks differently than me” is paper thin, and I would argue that most teams should absolutely be hiring people who fall into that second group. Leaving aside all the excellent ethical reasons, one of the biggest arguments in favour of greater diversity of hiring from a business point of view is that a range of different backgrounds and life experience bring radically different approaches to work that lead to massively increased potential solution space.

By all means, don’t hire someone who is going to irritate the team and throw off the dynamic, or who can’t get behind the company’s mission. But don’t exclude someone because they went to the wrong university, don’t like karaoke or aren’t a native English speaker. Cultural fit should not mean homogeneity.

I’m trying a new thing of actually offering tips rather than just pointing out problems3I’m not sure about it yet, it seems much easier to just complain about stuff…, so here are some practical tips which might help you get this one right:

  • Ensure that everyone involved in hiring, particularly anyone involved in cultural fit interviews, has had some sort of training in unconscious biases to help them be aware of their own prejudices
  • Avoid having a single interviewer in any assessment stage beyond the screener call – this one is very important because when you’re hiring by yourself it’s easy to miss things and getting a second opinion helps to reduce bias
  • Consider abolishing the specific cultural fit interview completely, and instead inviting an extra person to each of your earlier stages to get a wider view on the candidate’s suitability
  • If you do want a cultural fit interview, make it easy to pass – don’t reject people based on feelings, make sure you have a solid and defensible reason which you would feel ok about feeding back to the candidate

One reply on “Cultural fit and diversity”

It is not transferable to a hiring in a company scenario, but I often think in this context about what many years ago told me a colleague who was running a (self organised) democratic school (kind of free un-school). She told me that when there were parents who wanted to join, there was no real recrutation process. She and her colleagues just spent a lot of time “trying to discourage” the parents from joining. (Participating in this kind of school there and then required a lot of work and overcoming lots of obstacles). And if after some time of this discouraging the family in question still wanted to join, they were automatically accepted without any approval process.

She told me that was the only way to make sure they were not building school exclusively out of families that were similar to those that were already participating.

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