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‘Culture fit’ is a lie preventing you from adding value when hiring

Madison Butler, Seapine’s COO and principal facilitator of MAKESPACE+, addresses the unconscious bias behind “culture fit” and its effect on hiring decisions.

I don’t want to hire them – they’re not a culture fit.  I hear this all the time from managers.  I hire people for a living and I’ve spent a lot of time unpacking this statement to understand its roots and its effects on inclusion.

When hiring, we don’t want to say: She’s a woman. He’s too Black. She’s too queer. Instead, we use the excuse: She’s not a culture fit. We’ve wrapped our unconscious biases about these candidates in this phrase because we don’t want to have hard conversations.
If you’ve heard the term ‘culture fit’ as reasoning for not hiring someone, or you’ve even used it yourself, I have a question for you: “How many of you would choose to not hire me because I’m a Black woman?”

Hopefully, none of you – and for at least two reasons: 1) I can sue you. 2) It’s also not great for business. People talk about their employers on social media, for instance. And while we may not want to admit it, the problem is that plenty of people think it, and this idea about who “fits” negatively guides our decisions on who to hire (and who to reject).

When hiring, we don’t want to say: She’s a woman. He’s too Black. She’s too queer. Instead, we use the excuse: She’s not a culture fit. We’ve wrapped our unconscious biases about these candidates in this phrase because we don’t want to have hard conversations.

‘Culture fit’ has become a perfectly acceptable excuse not to hire someone

Here’s a good example. Last year, a Sales Manager rejected a candidate in her mid-40s, by telling me: “I don’t want to hire her. She’s not a culture fit.”

Now, I’m persistent, so I asked, “What does that mean?” And he said, “Well, you know, I just don’t think she’s gonna mesh with our team.” I was a big fan of this candidate, so I pushed him for more until he finally admitted, “I don’t think she’s going to fit in with this…this younger team. I just don’t think a woman in her mid-40s, who wants to make 50 thousand, is a fit for us.”

So now I’m panicking. And I’m pretty sure all the color left my face because I’m in HR and he just said all that stuff out loud. There’s some sexist and ageist language there, but also some uninformed presumptions about what this candidate might want.

I discovered that instead of feeling like she was too different from the team, the problem was that she was too similar to him. He felt like she was going to come in and compete for his leadership role.
I’m a startup enthusiast and the people I tend to work with are around 30. But this man happened to be in his 40s, just like the candidate he rejected. So I asked him, “Well, why do you fit on the team then? What makes you so different?”

In my head, I’m thinking: this is a lot to unpack! Should we unpack it right here and now?  Yes! If not now, when?

We continued talking so we could try to peel back the layers and hopefully uncover his biases and discover how they led him to reject this woman based on some vague notion of “culture fit.”

I discovered that instead of feeling like she was too different from the team, the problem was that she was too similar to him. He felt like she was going to come in and compete for his leadership role.

That is much more to unpack than “she’s kinda old.” And while her gender and age were factors, it was for a different reason than either one of us might have expected.

Lack of self-awareness makes you a poor leader

Let me be blunt – if you’re going to be a leader, you have to be self-aware. And that involves having some awkward conversations with yourself and with others. And, frankly, not having self-awareness makes you bad at your job. Covering up your biases by using phrases like “culture fit” is a cop-out.

Let me pose another question: If we’re going to talk about the benefits of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), is “culture fit” even a good thing? Don’t we want and need people to be different? Difference is exactly what we need when we bring people to the table!

We have to move away from this idea of ‘culture fit’ if we’re going to make progress. We’re trying to change and adapt and move forward – we don’t want more of the same. Homogenous workplaces don’t work (or at least not as well as diverse ones). Having just one “culture” is not good for success, innovation, or for helping good workers build fulfilling careers.

And what is your company culture anyway?

We’re all extremely different individuals. I’m Black, Portuguese, and Swedish, so there’s no box that I technically fit into. But even if we go beyond that, what does it mean to ask someone to assimilate into your company’s culture? Do they need to like kombucha? Does that mean they have to take advantage of the company keg and foosball table? Does everyone need to be able to share their Ivy League experiences?

As a Black woman, I don’t want to fit into spaces that weren’t intentionally made for me. I want to take up and make space that suits my skills – and have you value that.
We don’t get to choose someone’s culture nor can we assume how they might “fit” into the company’s. Only they can decide what feels like a good fit for them and where they want to work.

Maybe I want to work for a company with beer on tap, kombucha, and a foosball table. Or maybe I don’t want that at all. But you can’t assume how I’ll react to those things before I’m even on the team.

As we think about diversity we need to ask ourselves why we even expect people to fit into boxes and assimilate? As a Black woman, I don’t want to fit into spaces that weren’t intentionally made for me. I want to take up and make space that suits my skills – and have you value that. And I want you to realize that those new spaces make your company more welcoming and more successful because they allow me to do my best work.

Maybe we’re not looking for ‘culture fits.’  We’re looking for value-adds.

When I’m interviewing candidates, I’m not thinking, “Do I want to get a beer with this person?” That’s not part of their job. So many people believe we need to hire candidates that we would want to hang out with. But we don’t. In fact, surrounding ourselves with people just like us doesn’t lead to anything good – it’s merely comfortable. But comfort doesn’t lead to innovation or success. It simply creates an echo chamber.

If you want your company or team to be the best it can be, you have to take every opportunity you can to add value. And people who add value can only be discovered and accepted when we acknowledge and try to eliminate our biases.

DEI: The Word “Culture Fit” Is A Lie | Madison Butler | DisruptHR Talks from DisruptHR on Vimeo.

Visit our workplace diversity hub for further reading relating to current challenges faced by women and people of color, wage gaps, successful inclusion strategies, diversity in corporate and government leadership, effective talent acquisition and diversity programs, and how artificial intelligence affects diversity outcomes.

Madison Butler

Madison Butler is the VP of People + Culture at Sourced Craft Cocktails and COO for Seapine. Her work is focused around creating equitable spaces, people development and helping alleviate unconscious bias in corporate America. She is an outspoken advocate for diversity, belonging and the ability to be 'human at work'.

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