Hiring for culture fit is among the most widespread and exclusionary hiring practices today. Leaders must concentrate on culture add to be inclusive.
By Ruchika Tulshyan
Tiffany Tate was eagerly awaiting the phone call informing her that she had gotten the job as career center director at a recognized college.
Not only was she qualified—overqualified, in fact—as a college career development expert with two degrees, her interviews with the university’s hiring team had gone exceptionally well. The team was selling the role to her; she had spent ample hours in the interview process including having dinner with the team that she was sure she would be working with.
Tate was excited to move to a beautiful part of North Carolina with her then two-year-old daughter. The role would give her a growth opportunity, she would manage a significant budget, and the person she would be reporting to had bonded with her over the fact that they graduated from the same college.
It was all laughs and smiles. The fact that the 12 people who had interviewed her were all white was par for the course in Tate’s experience in North Carolina. As a Black woman, she had learned to navigate being the only at work.
When the hiring manager called back, she had all but packed her bags. She was ready. “Tiffany, I really hate to call you with this. It was such a tough decision. The search committee struggled with it, and it came down to you and one other person. And they just felt like the other candidate was a better fit. I’m sorry,” he said.
The blood drummed in her ears. Did she hear correctly? But she quickly collected herself, dusting off the disappointment.
“OK, well, can you offer any feedback?” she inquired. “Can you share what would make me a better fit for this role?”
He responded, “No, I just want you to know you asked all the right questions. I don’t have any feedback, I want you to keep being who you are. I love your transparency. You are obviously very skilled at what you do.”
It’s been five years since that day, but Tate remembers those words perfectly.
She wonders, “Weird! I’m not a good fit, but they’re telling me to continue being the way that I am. That doesn’t make any sense.”
When a hiring manager can’t offer constructive feedback, despite a candidate having all the experience and certifications, despite them being able to demonstrate skill in navigating institutional leadership and customers—students in Tate’s case—it’s a red flag. Considering that she had all the pedigree and all the best references, but was then told she wouldn’t fit the culture of the institution, she couldn’t ignore the only noticeable difference she had with everyone on the selection committee and eventually the person they hired: her identity as a Black woman.
“I felt defeated,” she says.
Culture Fit Is Exclusionary
Hiring for culture fit is among the most widespread and exclusionary hiring practices today. When you’re hiring for a fit—given that most companies in Western countries are led by white men—by default, you’re hiring for sameness. “Culture fit” is an unspoken code that people have around what’s acceptable and what’s not within an organization, or even in society.
It reminds me of when I first moved to the United States as an adult in my twenties. When people encountered my unfamiliar name, they frequently asked if there was an easier or shorter way to say it. Depending on the situation, I would come up with an Anglo-Saxon nickname (like Rachel). If I had to interact with them often, say at work, I’d let them call me Ria, removing most of my name to make it easier for them to write or read it.
As I grew older, I got more comfortable with telling people I didn’t have a shorter name and that Ruchika was the only version I would respond to. But even then, for years later, I wouldn’t correct them if they mispronounced it. A common mispronunciation still is for Westerners to call me “Roo-sheek-ah” instead of “Roo-cheek-ah” (like it’s spelled). Now I’ll correct people and remind them until they get it right. In the past, I was so eager to fit into the culture—both what I considered U.S. culture as well as assimilating into the workplace culture. Now I see that my biggest asset is the difference that I add to the culture.
Focus on Culture Add
Rather than focusing on culture fit, organization leaders must concentrate on culture add to be inclusive. A plethora of research shows that harnessing the power of diverse teams leads to better outcomes, such as less groupthink, more innovative solutions, and overall more profitability. My favorite data point, though, is how culture add can lead to justice and fairness.
Tufts University psychologist Samuel Sommers created a mock jury experiment with 200 adults. Some juries were racially mixed with white and Black jurors, and some were all white. After watching a video trial of a Black defendant facing charges of sexual assault, the juries were first to submit their own verdict of guilty or not guilty, and then deliberate as a group. Even prior to deliberation, the mixed juries were nearly 10 percent less likely to presume that the defendant was guilty, compared with the all-white juries. During deliberation, the racially diverse juries had a more thorough consideration of the evidence and deliberated on average for longer, making less factual errors and being more open to discussing the role of racism in the process. In general, even though there may be more debate, or what psychologists call “interpersonal conflict,” when teams are diverse, the benefits of better outcomes far outweigh the drawbacks.
When teams prioritize hiring a candidate who would be a culture add rather than a culture fit, they’re more likely to benefit from out-of-the-box thinking and better outcomes.
Culture Fit Persists
Yet the language of who is a culture fit persists—and one survey of global organization found 84 percent of recruiters look for it in their selection process.
Think back to the last time that you talked about someone being a fit or not. The more trouble you have articulating why a candidate is not a culture fit, the more likely your judgment is biased. Instead, seek to hire people you don’t already have represented, whether by race and gender, educational background and experience, country of origin and languages spoken, or other identities.
Tate, whom we met earlier, is a hiring expert with over a decade of career development experience. She advises her clients to move away from an outdated model of assessing how much you “like” a candidate to how well could they do their jobs.
“The old culture fit model relied on deciding whether to hire someone if you thought you could be stuck in an airport or blizzard with them. It’s a bizarre metric—and riddled with biases, because you would likely choose to be stuck in an airport in a blizzard with someone who looks like you,” she says. But that isn’t the best assessment of who would best perform a job on your team.
Hiring practices that revolve around assessing for culture fit result in bias. One such example? Black women are earning college degrees at record numbers, but remain underrepresented and underpaid in corporate workplaces, with low access to leadership opportunities, as most workplaces still hire for a fit with Eurocentric culture norms.
Structural racism cannot be dismantled overnight, but declaring that your workplace is no longer seeking a culture fit for new roles and disrupting peers when they reject a candidate for not being a culture fit is a quick win. So is creating a workplace environment where diversity and inclusion are valued, and culture add is celebrated.
Ensure that your organization prioritizes the hiring of a diverse range of employees, especially women of color. This is not just HR’s job; it is every manager’s responsibility.
As for Tate? She’s since founded a company where she coaches clients to navigate the recruiting process and advises countless leadership teams and boards on hiring and retention best practices.
During these interactions, she advises her clients to inquire of interviewees, “How will you add to the culture on our team?”
Excerpted from Inclusion on Purpose: An Intersectional Approach to Creating a Culture of Belonging at Work by Ruchika Tulshyan. Reprinted with permission from the MIT Press. Copyright 2022.
Ruchika Tulshyan is an inclusion strategist, CEO of Candour and author of Inclusion on Purpose: An Intersectional Approach to Creating a Culture of Belonging at Work (MIT Press).