How to Hire for Cultural Fit Without Becoming Insular and Mediocre

Have you read The next thing Silicon Valley needs to disrupt big time: its own culture? If not, it talks about hiring processes where companies

  • Hire people “just like us”
  • Where candidates can’t tell they are on interviews
  • Where, if you wear a suit, you might be disqualified, because, hey, we don’t wear suits here. No, it doesn’t count that you are the one interviewing

There’s more, but this is all done in the name of “meritocracy” and “cultural fit.”

You can call it cultural fit, but it’s not. It’s lazy interviewing. It’s bias against anyone who doesn’t look like us, sound like us, or is us, whomever us is. It creates an insular culture.

It’s a shame, because for any challenging product and knowledge work, you need diverse teams and diverse ideas to work together, to collaborate to create a great product. I’ve said it, in Great People Create Great Products. Anita Wooley says you need women in Defend Your Research: What Makes a Team Smarter? More Women. If you read Diversity and Innovativeness in New Product Development Teams:

Diversity can be a resource that helps to strengthen the innovativeness of a NPD team.
On the other hand , diversity can act as a risk
that leads to diminished team cohesiveness and thus obstructs innovativeness.

I didn’t say it was easy.

Here’s the problem: if you are creating a product for the marketplace, where the people don’t all look like you, you need to understand your market. You need to understand how those people think, how they use the product, and what they might want to buy.

If you only hire people who look just like you, act just like you, are mini-me’s, you don’t know anything about your potential market. You cannot empathize with your customers. You have created an insular culture. You are on your way to mediocrity.

Why do I say mediocrity? Because you have no way to get new ideas. You have the same kinds of people, who have the same experiences, who dress the same way, who think the same way, who act the same way. You have group-think. You might be great now. Someone else will eclipse you, because they have better ideas. They have more diverse ideas. Where do you think those ideas come from?

What do you do?

  1. Take a reflective look at your current culture. What does the organization reward? How do people treat each other? What can people discuss? That’s your culture. Are you aware of your culture?
  2. Are you using the term “cultural fit” as a catch-all to prevent people who don’t look or act just like you from joining your team? If you have not done a job analysis, you might be.
  3. Expand the pool of candidates. Instead of looking in the places you’ve always looked, look outside that normal pool. Recruit/source differently.
  4. Stop looking for technical skills first. Look for adaptability, for perseverance, for the ability to collaborate. Yes, those skills are more difficult to discover on a resume. You have to phone-screen differently. Candidates have to write resumes differently. You might not be able to use your ATS the same way. And, yes, the technical skills are still important. But they are not what make your teams great.

Think about the most successful people and your most successful teams now. What differentiates them from the less successful people? I bet it’s qualities such as these:

You do want to hire for culture. You do not want to create an insular culture, a mono-culture. Because you will not create products your customers need. You will become mediocre.

Read Hiring Geeks That Fit to understand what to do. Hiring is your most important job. You can do it fast and do it right.

About Johanna Rothman

I help managers and leaders do reasonable things that work.
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6 Responses to How to Hire for Cultural Fit Without Becoming Insular and Mediocre

  1. Jim Bullock says:

    Hi JR!

    They are hiring for fit, and getting the fit they want. It’s often not much of a fit for the long-term success or resilience of the organization.

    However, it is a fit for what the people doing the “interviewing” are looking for. They often select for over-credentialed, insecure over-achievers. Talent of a kind, but they won’t rock the boat or have an original, or even unanticipated thought. That’s comfortable.

    Works great when you happen to be surfing a trend not of your own creation, which is another thing they select for. Have you a nearly preternatural tendency to place yourself where good things are happening, through no fault of your own. Stepping up to problems, or doing the hard thing, not so much. You may want to go with what’s trending as a VC, but within an organization you need at least some folks who will do the work – who will step into the mess, and work hard to do something that will at best kinda work. They don’t get hired.

    Do not get me started on the abuses so often buried in “interview loops.”

  2. johanna says:

    HI Jim,

    Well, as you said, you won’t get long-term success or organizational resilience. It’s a shame.

    Please, do start on the abuses of interview loops. I have heard you rant, my readers haven’t. Please. (grin.)

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  4. Thank you very much for posting on this topic, Johanna. My company has been doing a bit of hiring over the last six months and several times I’ve found myself saying, “This candidate is good, but he already works here.” Maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised that the people we interview are a lot like the people who already work here. The requirements in our job descriptions are pretty specific (10+ years of Java development experience, etc.) and we place a high value on referrals when we look at resumes. I’ve never seen my company’s hiring practices approach anything near the stories relayed in the article you cite, but I wonder if we inadvertently hire people who are “like us” because they seem familiar (and, therefore, seem easier to work with and/or manage).

    What I struggle with is balancing the “risk” of hiring someone who does not fit the mold with injecting diversity and new ideas into a Team. It’s widely acknowledged that many people leave companies because their values do not align with the values and practices of the company (“I like to collaborate with others, but this company rewards weekend heroics”, “We expect regular visibility into our progress, but she won’t put up any code for review until it has been perfected”, etc.), so it makes sense that we’d want to hire people who fit into our culture. I guess the trick is to make sure that we don’t automatically assume that someone who has the same experiences as our current crop of engineers automatically has the same values as we do.

    Now that I’ve thought about it, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head: creating a mirrortocracy is a symptom of lazy leadership. If an organization doesn’t value supporting its newly-hired members by providing them with actionable feedback while they learn how to navigate the culture, it’s easiest just to find people who seem like a known quantity and let them figure it out themselves.

    Leadership is hard. Let’s go shopping!

  5. johanna says:

    HI David, we sometimes find it difficult to know what our values are, so we can hire for them. It’s easier to hire for technical skills. But technical skills aren’t why people don’t succeed at work. People don’t succeed because they don’t work like us. It’s not that they aren’t like us; it’s that they don’t work like us.

    That’s a big difference. Looking for surface similarities might get you people who align. The surface stuff is not guaranteed to.

    You area correct about leadership. It is difficult!

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