Is the ‘cultural fit’ interview bogus?

Hiring based on personality can diminish workplace diversity, experts say.

Since the 1980s, many companies have placed an emphasis on the importance of ‘cultural fit’ when hiring. But this can diminish workplace diversity, experts say.
Since the 1980s, many companies have placed an emphasis on the importance of ‘cultural fit’ when hiring. But this can diminish workplace diversity, experts say. –Flickr/Creative Commons

“If you were stuck on a desert island, who would you want beside you?’’

Probably someone with similar interests and values as your own. From personality and political views, to music preferences and sports team loyalty, research shows that we favor those who are similar to ourselves.

The “desert island’’ scenario may be a fun hypothetical question, but what happens when it’s used by hiring managers to decide who gets a job and who doesn’t?

Lauren Rivera, associate professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management raised the issue of cultural fit – the idea that the best employees are like-minded — in a recent New York Times op-ed, saying that the emphasis employers place on cultural fit has gone too far, paving the way for discrimination.

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“The component of personal match plays a role in every single interview – that’s human nature,’’ Rivera told Boston.com. “But I think in some companies it’s gotten out of hand.’’

It’s hard to feel completely at ease with someone who is vastly different from you, Rivera said, so when hiring managers make decisions based on whom they feel chemistry with, it often leads to a lack of workplace diversity.

This deficiency not only prevents worthy candidates from getting the job, but can also hurt a company’s productivity in the long run.

When employees are a homogenous bunch, they can perform simple tasks very efficiently, said John McCarthy, an associate professor of organizational behavior at Boston University. But when these groups are asked to make decisions that are more complex or creative, homogeneity hampers innovation, he said.

“They tend to only solve problems in the old way they solved them before,’’ McCarthy said. “Enough differences force us to try new things.’’

The idea of cultural fit gained traction in the 1980s, Rivera said, when companies thought hiring individuals with personalities and values (not skills) that meshed with an organization’s strategy would make them feel happier and work harder at their jobs. For some companies, like Southwest Airlines, this emphasis worked well and created a fun environment and financial success.

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“Cultural fit can be a really good thing when it fits with an organization’s values and business strategy,’’ Rivera said. “But it’s very often not treated in the same way it’s spoken about when used on the ground.’’

Many organizations haven’t clearly identified what their culture is, so when hiring managers are told to measure a candidate’s cultural fit, they often just look for someone who mirrors their own identities.

Rivera shared ways organizations could change this hiring pattern:

Define culture: Businesses should ask, “What do we do as a company that enables our success in the market at large?’’ Rivera said. Then figure out what traits lead to that success.

Focus on behavior: When hiring, look for people who exhibit behavior that matches your company’s culture. Don’t try and identify particular groups that are “likely’’ to have those traits, she said.

Use a systematic test: There are certain types of surveys or challenges posed to the interviewee that can test a candidate’s behavior, Rivera said. This is a cheap way to keep managers from hiring people based on snap judgments.

Quantify cultural fit: Determine how much you want interviewers to worry about a candidate’s cultural fit, Rivera said. Companies should decide the exact amount of weight they want to put on each hiring component, whether it’s 30 percent for writing skills, 20 percent for oral communication skills, etc.

“Unstructured interviews are really tempting,’’ Rivera said. “Choosing people who you’d want to be on an island with is very tempting. There’s something very real about on-the-job satisfaction and enjoyment, but there is more than one way to achieve that when hiring people.’’

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