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How an emphasis on cultural fit can sabotage your diversity goals

Six Degrees Executive
Puzzle pieces

Determining a candidate’s cultural fit is an increasingly important part of the hiring process. Get it wrong, and a new hire could ruin the harmonious workings of your team and is unlikely to last long at your organisation. But hiring for cultural fit may lead to the creation of a monoculture.

We’ve all seen what happens when someone is hired who can’t adapt to your workplace culture. The wrong hire can affect the team like a wrecking ball, creating a lot of damage along the way. Cultural fit is often used to justify an employee being dismissed, or not passing their probation, or not being hired in the first place, and is viewed by some as a cop-out for discrimination.

Part of the problem with the concept of cultural fit is its lack of definition. If you ask a hiring manager exactly what they mean by the term, they may struggle to answer. Does cultural fit refer to character traits? Values? Not having a problem with authority? Being “corporate”?

There are cultural fit tests (essentially personality tests) on the market which seek to turn cultural fit into a metric. To be effective, all of an organisation’s current employees must first take the test to establish the baseline against which cultural fit can be measured.

But for an organisation actively seeking to increase its mix of diverse employees, cultural fit can be a factor holding back this effort. If the baseline (or “norm”) is defined in terms of a majority culture, then assimilating into that norm is going to be a challenge for anyone from outside the majority group. For diverse candidates, cultural fit can be one of the greatest hurdles in progressing to the offer stage.

How cultural fit wrecks diversity efforts

“She’s a brilliant candidate, but I just don’t think she’s going to fit in.”

The next time you hear a hiring manager or colleague make this assessment, challenge it.

Rather than seeing the candidate as the problem, consider the prospect that your organisation doesn’t want to figure out how to work with that person. In other words, the company does not yet have the culture of inclusion required to work with diverse personalities who would not immediately assimilate into your cultural norms. The hiring manager may simply be unwilling to adapt their communication style; a key part of managing a diverse team.

Ability to adapt

Eliminating a candidate due to cultural fit at the interview stage overlooks their potential ability to adapt. Stanford researchers found that the degree to which workers are “capable of reading cultural code and shifting behaviours accordingly” was a powerful way of predicting an employee’s success at a company. Instead of probing for cultural fit, interviewers should instead focus on questions that assess the candidate’s ability to adapt.

And yet – this is where the cultural fit versus diversity discussion gets interesting – if you want to reap the benefits of diversity, you don’t want your new hires to adapt too much. Pushing people to try to fit in rather than letting them be their authentic selves propagates the idea of the monoculture and pressures your diverse employees to leave their personalities at the door. Benefits including increased creativity and innovation are unlocked by having people with diverse backgrounds and experience feeling comfortable enough to propose novel ideas that challenge the status quo. 

Cultural fit and values alignment

While we don’t recommend removing cultural fit from your hiring criteria, we would advise formalising what cultural fit really means for your organisation. The best definitions of cultural fit remove the term’s inherent vagueness and are built around the candidate’s potential to align with your organisations’ values.

To conclude with a very Australian suggestion, cultural fit can be boiled down to a “No D#ckheads” recruitment policy, as made famous by former Sydney Swans coach Paul Roos. But even this mantra needs some rules and definitions behind it.

Talk to Six Degrees Executive to learn more about diverse and inclusive recruitment.