Say you’re a hiring manager tasked with deciding between two candidates for an open role at your company. As you evaluate their skills, drive, and experience, there’s one question that stands out as incredibly important: Who would you rather hang out with if you were stuck inside during a snowstorm?
Questions like these are a real, common type of evaluation used by the majority of hiring professionals at banking, consulting, and law firms, according to sociologist Lauren Rivera. Through interviews and research, Rivera found that 82 percent of professionals rank “cultural fit” as the most important criteria in the interviewing stage.
On the surface level, it seems like there wouldn’t be anything wrong with seeking to hire people who would fit into your workplace—everyone wants a fun job with fun coworkers who they get along with well. But unfortunately, when hiring managers prioritize hiring people who’ll fit seamlessly into their preexisting culture, it reinforces the status quo, which contributes to a lack of diversity and an exclusive culture.
Below, we walk through more on how culture fit is used in interviewing, how the practice stifles diversity in the workplace, and how managers can build more inclusive cultures through company-wide self-reflection and discussion.
How finding a culture fit is used in interviewing
Historically, the practice of hiring for culture fit was viewed as a necessity. A 2015 Harvard Business Review article referred to culture fit as “the glue that holds an organization together” and cited data from the Society for Human Resource Management stating that the turnover following a poor culture fit hire could cost the company 50–60 percent of the employee’s salary.
Now, researchers are discussing the unintended consequences of interviewing for culture fit. For example, questions like “what sport did you play growing up?” or “where’s your favorite place to travel?” might seem innocent, but they unconsciously imply that a candidate has a certain level of privilege and socioeconomic status.
Multigenerational workplace expert Lindsey Pollak says: “Sometimes the word ‘fit’ is code for ‘somebody who looks like me.’ So we fit together because we look alike or we have the same experience or we’re in the same age range. We often, but not always, tend to hire people who are similar to who we are—in age, in race, in gender, in background, in experience, in socioeconomic class, even in region of the country.”
Rivera’s research shows that hiring professionals look for similarities in background or hobbies—meaning they value personal chemistry and common ground over actual job skills. One attorney told Rivera, “I looked at [a candidate’s] resume a few minutes before she came in...But there was nothing on there I could relate to. I looked at her activities and immediately knew we’d have nothing to talk about.”
We already know that interviews are subjective and prone to bias. But when hiring managers use this type of “looking-glass merit,” where managers base a candidate’s potential future success on how closely they mirror their own life experiences, candidates from untraditional or underrepresented backgrounds are automatically disadvantaged and disqualified.
How culture fit becomes a diversity issue
It’s clear that hiring for a culture fit is a flawed practice for many reasons, but a main reason is that it stifles diversity in the workplace. When managers hire based on their own image, interests, and background, they’re going to end up with homogeneous teams that lack the variety of opinions and perspectives that could lead to positive change, innovation, and progress.
As another example, say a man, who is a sports fanatic, is interviewing three candidates for a software engineer position—one candidate is a man who follows college sports, and the other two happen to be women who don’t watch sports in their free time. The hiring manager and the man strike up a conversation about sports and hit it off, and the hiring manager vouches that he’d be a better culture fit, even though the women are equally qualified.
This practice can deepen the cycle of male-dominated teams and enable informal toxic systems and groups like boys’ clubs and bro culture to flourish since candidates who share similarities and have network connections at the company have a better chance of being hired. And when employees belonging to underrepresented groups and identities do get hired, they often subsequently feel forced to assimilate into these toxic environments since conforming allows them more opportunities to set themselves up for a mentor relationship, raise, or promotion.
Plus, organizational challenges such as groupthink arise more often in homogenous workplaces. When everyone comes from similar backgrounds, cultures, or socioeconomic statuses, there’s less room for creativity and employees are less likely to challenge each other’s assumptions and ideas.
10+ questions to uproot your culture fit problem
There’s so much research out there that lays out the benefits of diverse, inclusive workplaces. Diverse teams are smarter and perform better, so it’s beneficial to everyone to hire candidates that will add to your culture, not simply fit in. (There's more context on addressing culture fit biases during interviewing here, including questions hiring managers can ask instead.)
And in addition to actively striving to find new perspectives to enhance company culture and profitability, hiring managers and leaders have to also do the long-term work of building an inclusive culture that will support all employees post-interview stage.
At least every quarter, managers and leaders should be asking themselves self-reflective questions, asking their direct reports for feedback in 1:1s, and starting discussions in employee resource groups and during town hall meetings. It’s important to move away from the idea that culture fit should be a team mindset and learn how to celebrate individuality and everything that comes with bringing your whole self to work.
Here are 10+ example questions managers can ask themselves and others in order to build a more inclusive culture:
What can we do to discover gaps in our knowledge of how our workforce is thinking and feeling?
How do our differences in background and perspective as a team help us grow?
Are we living out our defined company values?
Does my leadership style uplift or alienate?
What are we doing to encourage curiosity about others? Do we celebrate individuality?
How much do we understand and respect differences in communication preferences?
How are we holding ourselves accountable?
Are we diversifying our networks and bringing up diversity when making decisions?
How are we ensuring people come first? Are we modeling that?
Do people in our environment feel safe being “contrary” to the group or providing negative feedback?
In order to truly hold themselves accountable, managers and employees need to tie their answers to specific examples, similar to how you use the STAR method in interviews. If they can't think of specific ways on how each question is being delivered on, then the next step should be to take action and gather more information about how their culture is perceived.