The “F” Word that Makes or Breaks Hiring Decisions

(This post was originally run on The Huffington Post on July 8, 2016.)

”Fit.” This is recruiting’s big elephant in the room, staring back with wide, open eyes, waiting to be addressed directly. Unfortunately, many organizations fail to do so, leaving the vague term out there to impact hiring decisions even more than competencies and experience.

With this term being so commonplace, it is also one that I have been trying to wrap my brain in and around for a while in terms of how it potentially exacerbates the lack of workforce diversity in Silicon Valley.

Could an organization’s culture, and the propensity to screen and hire for it, lead to the hiring of a homogeneous workforce?

Whether I like it or not, the answer I keep coming to is “yes.” Cultural fit, as TechTarget defines it, is the “likelihood that a job candidate will be able to conform and adapt to the core values and collective behaviors that make up an organization.” I have emphasized the words in bold to address the notion of sameness and assimilation that is represented by this definition. With this said, determining a candidate’s ability to be successful in an organization’s culture is an important consideration, for it can help to promote long-term retention and success in role, and thus save a company tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars in unnecessary turnover costs. However, assessing this ability through competency-based questions is the missing part of the current hiring equation. And, as a recent Harvard Business Review article noted, this sort of “tribal” and “hiring like me” mentality seeps into talent management policies, thus exacerbating the tendency to promote and reward those that subscribe to the behaviors of the majority. This lack of alignment not only becomes a Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) issue, but a talent and potentially a legal issue if cultural fit as a reason to not hire or even promote one candidate over another disproportionately impacts one group of persons.

While unconscious bias (UB) training can help mitigate and begin the conversation around the innate brain patterns that influence these outcomes, it is by no means a solution to years of homogeneous hiring efforts.

How, then, can organizations mitigate this bias towards sameness or “fit” in their hiring efforts?

First, organizations should reframe this conversation from being one about fit to being one about success. Why? Because the term “fit” in and of itself connotes homogeneity. It also greatly misrepresents the purpose of hiring for fit in the first place, which is to hire people that are going to be successful in a particular environment. This is why I refer to cultural fit as cultural success, as it better represents the end goal of hiring for fit, but without this precarious emphasis on sameness. After reframing the conversation to focus on cultural success, I recommend that organizations: 

  1. Identify competencies required for success in the organization’s culture.

  2. Redesign interview questions to better assess for these competencies.

Determining those competencies associated with success in an organization’s culture is different than identifying behaviors, which to date has been the standard practice in hiring for “fit.” The mistake in only identifying behaviors, however, is the bent towards subjectivity, which can and oftentimes does lead to unintended biases in the decision-making process. For example, if a company defines its culture as “bold,” I recommend going further and defining the competencies associated with this adjective, such as a willingness to take risks. This organization can then go a step further and state what types of risks are then appropriate in its current culture. By identifying multiple examples of this cultural trait in action, the organization is proactively mitigating subjectivity while at the same time opening the recruiting pipeline to additional groups of talent that it may not have considered in the past.

Once organizations have done this difficult work, it is important to assess and redesign some of the interview questions. To properly assess the competencies required to be a “bold” leader, an interviewer could ask questions such as, “Tell me about a time that you took a risk in your career. What was the situation, task at hand, action you took and result?” and “Tell me about a time in your career in which you voiced a divergent or less popular opinion? What was the risk in doing so? What was the result?” These types of specific questions that assess skills are the ones needed to assess a candidate’s propensity to be successful in a specific culture. 

While these recommendations begin to solve for the need to define culture, they do not address the many complications that could potentially arise during this process. From unearthing revealing data to implicit biases, the conversations needed to define an organization’s culture are emotional ones. Just as each one of us is deeply invested in our own cultural upbringing, many employees are similarly connected to their organizations’ cultures. This is why communications around this work need to be handled delicately, with an emphasis and focus on its positive impact on the business, both in the short and long term.

This last piece is sometimes where this work falls short. This type of mindset and culture shift is the right thing to do. But, in the end, it is the necessary thing to do. As Childs, a former IBM executive stated in an interview with The Boston Globe, “…I need to have people who look like the marketplace working for me…Idealism is [expletive]. This is about business. This is about being competitive.” Amen to this statement. It’s about time we said goodbye to the “F” word in recruiting and let the elephant breath a big sigh of relief.