by Sharon Florentine

How to keep ‘culture fit’ from killing workplace diversity

Sep 06, 2017
CareersIT LeadershipStaff Management

Workplace culture can be a strong determining factor for success. But emphasizing culture fit when hiring can result in an unhealthy monoculture if you aren’t taking steps to foster diversity and inclusion.

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.

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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.

“If you’re hiring only for cultural fit, it’s like planting a forest with only one kind of tree — you get a monoculture. It’s not sustainable; so we focus on what our values are as a company, and how each individual we consider hiring embody those. We don’t hire specifically for culture fit, but on how those values are lived by candidates,” Wittenberg says.

Making sure that recruiters, hiring managers and internal stakeholders represent diverse groups and diversity of thought also ensures a more effective hiring process, says Pat Wadors, chief human resources officer and SVP at LinkedIn.

“We have united hiring committees that screen for both the technical and the soft skills,” Wadors says. “We’re looking for things like agile learners, coding ability, architecture, their discipline and drive and how they measure the quality of their work.”

Intel, too, focuses on having an intersectional hiring team working to source and screen intersectional candidates, says Barb Whye, vice president of human resources and chief diversity and inclusion officer at Intel, and to ensure candidates are in line with Intel’s values from the start.

“First and foremost, we operate based on our value systems. We hire based on whether or not candidates are innovative, results-oriented, accountable, driven, and whether they can demonstrate open, honest communication skills. Part of that inclusive methodology is that, yes, we have a diverse panel of interviewers, but we also demand diverse candidates. Another thing: We require that a formal job requisition is always posted; none of this sliding in candidates based on their friendship with an employee, or getting around our process. And that goes all the way from the highest executive levels down,” Whye says.

To create a phenomenally diverse and inclusive culture, you have to have transparency, accountability, education, and you have to have diversity and inclusion running through every single thing you do, Trinidad says, at every level of the organization. But that doesn’t mean that every person hired has to be a diversity advocate from day one, she says. Education and people development is an incredibly important part of Lever’s strategy, Trinidad says.

“We have to bring people on board first, and then bring them along to inform them about why this is important. Why are gender-neutral bathrooms important? Why are we developing employee resource groups to amplify voices of people of color? LGBTQ? Why is intersectionality important? Why are we working with finance to ensure pay equity? We focus on threading inclusion through every single thing we do here,” she says.

Whether you’ve been a diverse, inclusive organization from the start or you’re making efforts to get there, know that the process takes time and effort, but that it’s achievable. While culture is an important aspect of attracting and retaining top IT talent, make sure you’re not inadvertently creating exactly the kind of culture you don’t want.