When Does Hiring for “Culture Fit” Cross the Line of Discrimination?

Making the perfect hire is an art. It requires the ability to properly assess a candidate through an unbiased lens using a delicate balance of factuality and human emotion. With the company’s best interest at the forefront, three fundamental aspects come to mind when I think about what comprises the right person for the job.

  1. Talent: Some candidates just have the “it factor” more than others. We each hold an array of individual talents that make us who we are; such as an accountant naturally good with numbers or a writer with wordplay that easily flows from their fingertips.   
  2. Credentials: A candidate with extensive study and training displays a proven work ethic and fundamental knowledge in the field through a rigorous ability to facilitate learning. Hard work always beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.
  3. Experience: Extensive success in past employment positions displays consistent reliability, an ability to grow and a well-versed skill set that wholly qualifies them for the position.

The notion of hiring for “culture fit” is routinely used by corporate companies in the hiring process while aiming to identify qualified candidates aligned with their own culture and core values. It’s totally reasonable. Companies should want their staff to be unified. A collaborative staff culture is proven to produce greater overall productivity and a positive work environment.

However, there’s also a downside to an excessive culture-fit focus. Oftentimes, hiring managers will weigh a candidate’s potential fit over talent, credentials and experience – a dangerous tactic that can lead to inadvertent (and sometimes illegal) discrimination based on demographic differences or personality traits.

Here enters unconscious bias.

What’s unconscious bias? From a hiring perspective, it’s selecting a candidate based on our instinctive feelings and emotions rather than a rational thought process. Patty McCord, who served as Netflix’s Chief Talent Officer from 1998 to 2012explained it well in a 2018 column published by the Harvard Business Journal. A candidate possessing a strong culture-fit appeal may be someone you feel would connect well with others on the team based on commonalities, someone you’d want to grab a happy hour with, a person you wouldn’t mind getting stuck in an airport alongside if your flight was delayed, or someone you’d love to catch a baseball game with.

It’s common for us to be drawn to people with compatible and similar viewpoints. The problem with the human element to hiring is that it often leads to poor workplace diversity, which is completely out of touch with the current landscape of America. We live in the most diverse country on the planet, and our best companies reflect that.

So, when hiring talent, open-mindedness isn’t just important. It’s essential.

Avoiding Discrimination From Unconscious Bias

There are proactive methods you can use to avoid discrimination while still keeping the culture-fit approach in mind.

  1. Take the team approach: Use a search committee comprised of individuals with diverse views, age ranges, demographics and backgrounds. This way, your talent evaluation process will feature opinions from individuals with different perspectives on the elements of an ideal culture-fit, while still maintaining the like-minded goal of doing what’s best for the company.    
  2. Define a clear culture: Establish clear and quantifiable aspects of your company ethos that are easily understood and implemented. Is your workplace pillared on a family-style approach promoting teamwork and collaboration? Or, does your company foster a competitive culture to drive consistent results and sustainable success? Use a checklist to be able to identify the right competencies that suit your work environment.
  3. Justify the “why”: Determining a candidate to be either aligned or unaligned with your company culture without providing sound reasoning is a likely sign of hire discrimination. In your talent evaluation process, communicate why you feel that candidate isn’t the right fit. It will foster discussion with the other members of the hiring team and potentially catch any underlying unconscious biases.

The unbiased evaluation of an employee’s culture fit can help create a diverse, yet highly functional team that leads to sustained success and a healthy/happy workplace environment.