For decades, companies have stressed how important it is to hire candidates who are a good “culture fit.” But at best, even with a well-intentioned hiring manager, the pursuit of culture fit can result in an extreme lack of diversity. At worst, it covers up discrimination.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to hire people who share the values of your workplace. The danger comes from being unable to see that candidates who don’t look or talk like you are great hires, and that’s what can happen with culture fit.
Part of the problem is with the interview questions, which are often framed from the interviewer’s own life and experiences. Of course, the issue runs deeper, starting with the entire hiring process and initial conversations about growth.
But when you consider the following approaches to hiring, you can avoid the negative sides to culture fit and build a thriving team.
The move from “culture fit” to “culture add” interviewing
As recently as 2015, a Harvard Business Review article referred to culture fit as “the glue that holds an organization together.” It 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.
The article also noted the growing discussion about how hiring for culture fit can lead to discrimination and lack of diversity. That’s where the difficulty is—how do you hire someone who would enjoy and share the values of your workplace, while avoiding hiring clones of yourself and your current staff?
Companies started looking for a new approach to recruiting. In March 2017, Forbes wrote about “the end of culture fit.” Author Lars Schmidt pointed to music streaming service Pandora Media and its “culture add” approach, and software maker Atlassian and its “values fit” approach.
Now, five years later, some companies are still stuck with outdated culture fit practices—and don’t always realize the problem. They think they’re looking for someone who will enjoy working at their company. But the idea of culture fit means exclusion, intended or not.
Hana Elliott is an experienced tech industry leader who helps launch sales careers for entry-level folks from diverse backgrounds. She has been recruiting and onboarding team members for years. She has seen how a “culture fit” mentality can be a dangerous label for mistreatment.
“One thing I’ve noticed is the term ‘culture fit’ is too often a mask for blatant discrimination,” Elliott says. “It’s an excuse for not hiring or promoting people who are otherwise qualified, but make us uncomfortable. It’s the reason many hiring managers give when there isn’t a true reason.”
After posting in March 2022 on LinkedIn about being “over” culture fit, Elliott has heard from people who said they were rejected from a job or promotion for not being a good “culture fit”—and more often than not, they were persons of color.
“When ‘culture fit’ is used to keep out those who are different from what we are used to, it results in less innovation and more groupthink, ultimately and directly impacting the growth of an organization,” Elliott says. “When we hire people who tell us what we want to hear and bring perspectives that are similar to what we already have, are we really pushing ourselves? I have to believe the answer is no. We continue to do what makes us comfortable.”
So how do you actually shift from culture fit to a healthier approach? As with any hiring and recruiting improvements, the change starts well before the interview.
How to develop a hiring process that’s better than culture fit
Lisa Lee, former director of diversity and inclusion and Pandora Media, said in a 2016 talk she and her team were “on a personal mission to ban the phrase ‘culture fit.’”
“Rather than fitting somebody into a box, which is really what “fit” is all about, it’s about how to have this conversation about how this person can bring something very different and unique to your team,” Lee said. “You might land at the same result, that maybe this is not the right person for you to hire at this moment, but it gives you a very different kind of conversation.”
Pandora supported “culture add.” That means hiring people who can do the job, and also bring unique skills and viewpoints with them, not already represented at the company. Pandora’s strategy started well before the interview process, with their approach to talent marketing. Instead of existing employees solely reaching out to their own networks, they would aim to fill their candidate pipeline with people who aren’t represented in the majority at the company.
Executive consultant and leadership coach Delisa Alexander also wrote about culture add in Fast Company in 2019.
“Assessing for culture fit can unintentionally encourage managers to pick candidates that look like everyone else. But looking for culture add helps managers to determine how a candidate’s individuality and differences can make a company better and stronger,” Alexander wrote.
When hiring, she said “...you want a workforce that’s inspired to learn, grow, and be able and willing to adapt as the company and the business landscape changes. This means hiring for such things as a thirst for knowledge, curiosity, adaptability, and potential.”
Elliott has adopted what she calls a “mindset fit” approach.
“I care less about experience and degrees, and more about mindset—that tells me more about a candidate than what they look like, where they went to school, if we speak the same language or regional dialect, who they know. What I care about is how their brains work—that tells me if they’ll be successful on my team.”
When it comes to the interview process, there are three things Elliott suggests to help successfully move away from culture fit.
“Align on interview questions and process before you start,” Elliott says. “Make sure everyone feels safe giving feedback on questions that could imply bias. And ensure you’re sourcing outside of personal networks.”
As for the specific culture-related interview questions, Elliott outlined these four considerations to find someone who is a good fit while not being a clone of everyone already in the organization.
Culture fit interview questions to avoid and “mindset fit” questions to ask
1. Be aware of questions that imply a bias.
You might not realize the questions you ask fall into this territory. “Questions like “what sport did you play growing up?” and “where’s your favorite place to travel?” seem innocent, but they imply that you expect the candidate has had a certain level of financial access to purchase equipment or travel,” Elliott says. Give your usual questions a closer look to remove anything like this.
2. Know that everyone communicates differently.
“Someone who has had to fight every step of the way to gain momentum in their career may communicate differently from those who haven’t,” Elliott says. “Someone coming from a different workplace environment may bring baggage or a communication style you’re not used to.” Listen to the person’s experience, that’s what matters for the role.
3. Ask for specific examples around the mindset criteria that’s most important to you.
“These are questions like, “tell me about a time when persistence paid off for you,” or “tell me about an example of when you were responsible for a project that didn’t go as planned; what happened next?” or “what is most important to you outside of work?” Elliott says.
4. Look for behavioral cues that can give you the answers you need.
Consider what people’s communication styles really say about them. “Are their responses to your questions clear and concise? Then they are a naturally skilled communicator. Do they respond with appreciation when you offer feedback during the interview? They are coachable and eager to learn. Do they ask you questions during the interview? They are curious and have a learning mentality,” Elliott says.
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About our source
Hana Elliott has been building teams in the fast-moving tech industry for years. She’s helped well-known companies with their on and off boarding process and diversity, equity, and inclusion policies. She’s worked in marketing and product development to grow revenue while building healthy relationships with the customer, and helped launch sales careers for entry-level team members. Hana is currently VP of Revenue at Vendition, helping professionals find roles in the tech world.