Cultural Fit: A Bias-Free Solution

Gal Sagy | CEO | Co-Founder

January 24, 2021

Hiring for cultural fit - the idea of identifying candidates who will integrate easily and mesh well with a team -  has become a hot trend, and for good reason: it makes intuitive sense that people who feel comfortable at an organization will be happier and more productive.  What’s more, for many candidates, and millennials in particular, cultural fit has become a key consideration when choosing a workplace. According to a Korn Ferry survey of over 1000 hiring managers, cultural fit is “the top reason a candidate chooses one organization over another.”  

However, many in the industry worry that hiring for cultural fit can serve as a biased selection mechanism, leading to “look alike” hires that further institutionalize existing bias, whether intentional or unintentional, in the workplace.

Our view: Not to get too philosophical, but cultural fit is a construct, and whether it’s a force for good or evil will depend on how we define it. If we define it in a meaningful way - ie, based on motivations, capabilities and work styles - it can become a powerful lense through which to assess candidates, attracting people who are likely to flourish in a given environment and working with a specific manager.  And when coupled with AI trained to identify this meaningful interpretation of cultural fit, it can serve as a powerful force multiplier for a bias-free, high-match hiring process. 

So let’s dig in a bit…

Who’s Afraid of Cultural Fit?

While the positives of finding people who will easily and successfully fit into your organization are clear, concerns abound. The Wall Street Journal, for example, ran a piece titled The Dangers of Hiring for Cultural Fit, arguing that it can lead to an office full of “new hires [that] all look, think and act alike.”  Hiring managers, in this world view, may prefer people who they identify with in some way or, as Patty McCord, the former chief talent officer for Netflix, commented, candidates they would “like to have a beer with.”

Further complicating matters, these “look alike” hires may not literally look alike, creating a fiction of diversity (as well as a fiction of cultural fit, but more on that below).  If a manager tends to favor fellow alumni or football lovers or vegetarians, the office may look diverse, but still suffer from an inherent lack of diversity. 

Look Alike vs. Meaningful Cultural Fit

The issue, then, is in how we define cultural fit. More often than not, it is described as a relatively superficial quality, ultimately answering the question: Is this someone I would like to have lunch with? But that definition is likely to lead not only to biased hiring of many look-alike candidates, but to hiring people who may actually NOT be a good cultural fit from an organizational perspective. Is your fellow racquetball player likely to flourish in a fast-paced environment? Can they handle task ambiguity? Will they quickly get bored with the monotonous tasks this job requires? Of course, the same is true from the candidate’s perspective. An office with a ping pong table or one that allows dogs won’t make them happy if it requires them to multitask instead of delving into one project or if they don’t get the amount of feedback they need. 

It’s 2021: Look-alike cultural fit - out. Meaningful cultural fit - in. 

Organizational AND Personal Cultural Fit:

Achieving strong cultural fit should not be only at the organization/company level, but also at the personal/manager level. At the end, a candidate’s day-to-day, and much of their success, depends on being able to meet the requirements and expectations of their individual manager.    

If the candidate is going to work for a micromanager, rather than trying to change the manager (good luck), it is probably more effective to identify candidates who need and want a high-touch management style. Conversely, it would be ideal to hire a candidate who likes to delve into projects and needs only minimal guidance and feedback for a manager who is overloaded or has a low-touch management style. 

These are the issues that lie at the heart of meaningful cultural fit.  Rather than trying to change managers (or maybe in addition to that dream…) your organization can hire good-fit candidates if your process is able to identify not only the necessary expertise and experience, but also the cultural fit qualities likely to lead to success within your company and, more specifically, for each hiring manager. 

AI and Cultural Fit 

Though often seen as having “powers” of its own, AI is simply a tool that analyzes results and finds relevant patterns. With AI, we can look at the results of  a recruiting process - who was hired, who churned quickly - and identify the factors that predict a meaningful cultural fit (and the resulting upsides of such hiring) and then start looking for those factors in the candidate pool. Interestingly, this process often results in unintuitive findings: a manager may think she should hire people who are proactive, but AI analysis might find proactive types don’t last long in that position. Or she may think that people who crave mentorship will flourish, when indeed people who need more autonomy do better in that role. AI is able to identify those parameters and then analyze the candidate pool to find people whose qualities and motivations are likely to lead to successful, long-term hires. Trained correctly, AI will allow us to not only diversify our teams, but to bring on people who are a good cultural fit, in a meaningful way.

It’s 2021: It’s time for the marriage of AI and meaningful cultural fit.

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