Employee Retention Hiring & Recruiting

Recruiting for Adaptability and Culture Fit May Lead to Exclusion of Diverse Talents: How to Hire Tactfully

I hate it when anyone starts a hiring pitch with some line about how the world is changing fast and how you need to hire highly “adaptable” people with “can do” attitudes who “fit the culture” of your company.

Not only is it a tired line, but I actually believe it is a failing sentiment. Do not get me wrong, I think most of us want to work in an environment where we evolve at a pace that is in line with our personal ambitions, and in line with the real needs of our peers, clients, and customers. But, we cannot lose sight of the fact that, for our health and happiness (both individually and collectively), we should evolve at a pace that is in line with nature.

We use the term “adaptable” with such absentmindedness these days that sometimes I think people forget we can adapt for better or for worse.

“If you are absolutely content with what you have, there is no aspiration in life. It is important to have aspirations but if you are feverish about them, that becomes an impediment. If a cup is held under a tap that is running at full force, it will never get full. Run the tap water at the right speed and the cup fills up. This is what happens with people who are too ambitious or feverish.”

—Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

I cringe when hearing a hiring manager or recruiter start a pitch using some line about how the world is changing fast and how they need to hire “highly adaptable people with can-do attitudes who fit the culture of their company.” It’s a tired, non-specific line that undermines what an employer truly needs, what an individual actually has to offer, and it perpetuates an idea of “culture fit” without concrete or tested parameters of what it actually means, let alone who is credible to vet for it or how the process might blatantly or blindly foster bias, sexism, or discrimination.

Yes, hiring people for their adaptable, can-do attitudes should help lessen the dilemmas of change, particularly when role requirements are crisp, and the scope of the role is accurately defined. That’s when a lovely, adaptable, can-do-culture-fit hire operates under an assumption that adaptation is a refinement, an improvement upon, a role or function that is already working in some baseline way.

But often, companies that are changing are also unprepared for change, and role requirements are unclear and non-specific, and “adaptable” and “can-do” lend themselves to ageism and reverse-ageism, rendering job-seeker experience and individuality non-essential since their lives a more dominant contract of rampant adaptation–doing more with less support–and commonly with the expectation of perfection. If the individual in the role fails, or if the function of their department fails, or if the company itself fails, then the employer or manager points the finger at the individual who is performing to the best of his/her ability in a role that was designed to fail. Sometimes when this is happening to a seasoned person, the sentiment is, “You[the individual] are not fresh or energetic enough to meet the demands of this role.” To a younger person, the sentiment is, “You lack work ethic.” Often, if the individual objects, well, then he or she is not being an adaptable-can-do player.

I tend to believe that recruiters and hiring managers, and the management community at large, have good intentions, and this bad outcome is merely the consequence of confusion. I am going to go out on a limb here and say most people want to evolve at a pace that is in line with expectations. They want to fulfill the needs of peers, clients, and customers.

My belief is that burned out managers are being told they must complete an assignment (or too many assignments) in timeframes that are not possible and not always practical. The saying goes, “Nine women can’t make a baby in one month.” But these folks are not in a position to control the situation, either from lack of power, or lack of training/ability. There is an imbalance and the individual or the company is struggling to pivot, to push back, or to filter out non-productive activities, and, hence, they pass the buck to somebody else. Since they don’t have the time (or don’t make the time) to determine or vet requirements, they lob to a recruiter who doesn’t have all the pertinent information.

Now it becomes the recruiter’s job to find the right talent, and that is when you get: “Find me someone adaptable with a can-do attitude who fits the culture of our company,” when, at this point, it would be more productive to hear: “Find me someone who is experienced, strong-willed, but openminded. We need to hire someone who helps design limits and parameters, someone who is not afraid to push back, someone who helps ground others in the face of obstacles; someone with exemplary communication skills and the courage of his/her convictions. We will need to determine the role requirements together. We are committed to cohesiveness, to compromise, to empathy, and, importantly, mutual self-accountability.”

The Dangers of Recruiting for Culture Fit

Let’s discuss culture fit. There is a growing body of employers who have developed a framework for what they see as the cultural pillars of their organization. These pillars are the guiding values and principles they believe will allow them to succeed in business. This is the best case scenario for how companies recruit for culture fit. I won’t even go into the worst case scenario because there is fault enough in the best case. Subsequently, they use this framework to narrow prospects from the herd and hire people to run or manage the actual work. Seems reasonable.

But it reminds me of a similar scenario where a person identifies his or her ideal life partner by taking into consideration religious and political views, beliefs about family, beliefs about hygiene, beliefs about gender roles, beliefs about income, and so on. (2, 3)

How many possible permutations of a fit may there realistically be? Infinity? 100? 1?

What is the margin of error?

What is the probability that group-think forms a predisposed bias?

What about the role of our neurobiological natures? How does that impact decision-making?

It is a well-known fact that human beings are born with the tendency to reason or justify their way through almost anything—good and bad alike. We pick what we want to do, and then we rationalize it. If you want to learn more about this, I highly recommend you read the book, The Righteous Mind by John Haidt, where Mr. Haidt explains the tendency for human beings to first assume their instinctual beliefs as true and then they find ways to rationalize those beliefs as true, rather than actually question “is it true?” to determine validity. (3)

Let’s be realistic, folks; even if you understand at a basic level what values you are looking for in an individual hire, chances are you don’t know how to define or correctly apply those values. There are philosophers and scholars who have spent lifetimes exploring “values.” Do you think your recruiter or hiring manager is one of them? Most recruiters and hiring managers merely have a cursory understanding.

Thus, when I think of institutions enforcing “culture fit” hiring practices, I cannot help but wonder how subconsciously or even intentionally institutions introduce prejudice into the process; how they are probably weeding out people who could be their best performers; how they are likely demoralizing masses of qualified people; how they are obliviously enforcing broken stereotypes; and how they use sweeping generalizations to assume a host of specific beliefs about individuals.

But if you are going to move forward with this approach then it makes sense to accept that imperfect individuals enforce them, and it is necessary to assume that you are susceptible to unconscious or subconscious or accidental bias. Therefore, you should build in meaningful protocols to prevent prejudice, to the extent that it is possible. I suggest systematically and iteratively posing three fundamental questions.

  1. How could we be introducing prejudice/bias through our process and what problems might this create? (For example, maybe our corporate value of transparency has led us to hire many individuals who are more likely to speak frequently, loudly, and aggressively, since transparency often binds with such above mentioned characteristics, and also it binds itself to individuals who tend to experience less backlash when being transparent. Hence, we may be marginalizing individuals who historically are more likely to experience higher degrees of backlash when speaking without a filter, e.g. women and minorities where transparency can or has been a punishable offense. Additionally, we have noticed that misinformation runs amuck throughout our organization, and correcting misinformation is both costly and exhausting.
  2. How can we reduce or eliminate this prejudice?  (We de-emphasize hiring for this value for certain classes of people or we adjust the weight of this value against others. We contemplate how this value may manifest itself in different people. We very specifically define the value, and include what the value is not.
  3. What’s the benefit in fixing this problem? (In the above example, we would grow more precise, and thus, statistically more profitable. We would produce higher quality work outputs since we’ve hired individuals who chose their words more carefully, and that meticulousness transcends into the work. Additionally, we manage the spread of miscommunication more effectively, a must in a large organization, all while making the world a better, more diverse, place.)

I intentionally use “could we be,” instead of “are we,” in the first question because it is easy to assume you are immune from this issue. The question is designed to push you to reflect on possibilities—to observe “what is” rather than what you assume is true.

So, how would I go about hiring if I were you?

There are some excellent recruiting firms out there that are more than capable of researching and sourcing to identify pools of potential candidates. And you should absolutely hire them to help with this. They have the tools and resources. I am happy to provide assistance with this, should you need it.

But the problem, as discussed, is not getting to the pools of candidates. Rather, the problem is wearing the right lens, both to identify the right pools, and to select the right candidate. Minimizing the margin of error is dictated by how well you define your own requirements, and the best people to perform the following exercise are those with the knowledge—the people the new hire will work with, will work for, will supervise, and equally important, if not more so, the domain experts (individuals who are exceptional at the craft you are hiring for).

Before I move on, let me say that determining whether personalities, abilities, and skills will complement and supplement the personalities, abilities, and skills of the actual people who are doing the work is no small feat, but with practice, you will improve.

Okay, let us get started.

How to Hire Tactfully

  1. Create a list of non-negotiable job tasks. Many people will tell you to start with the goal of the role. I agree, but would argue not to put too much weight into this as more specific goals can be psychological de-motivators, can be frequently incorrect, are infrequently met, and are often ignored. (4, 5) It is not worth starting a relationship this way. You are better off allowing specific goals to emerge organically, while emphasizing the high-level ones more vehemently. At the same time, your must-do’s need to be spelled out clearly, hence, start with tasks.
  2. Identify the skills and abilities necessary to do these tasks well. Here is where your domain experts come into play.
  3. Validate your list with credible people.
  4. Identify and evaluate potential pains of the role. For example, if this role requires the handling of a high-need, high-demand, client for long periods of time, how will you support the person in this role, in times of sickness, vacation, and during other valid absences? How will you empower the person in the role to set limits?
  5. Identify basic parameters such as: pay range, expected work hours, and work location. Can he/she work remotely? Must he/she be onsite?
  6. Determine a reasonable time frame for filling (or adjusting) the role based on the actual talent pool, your current needs, future/consequential needs, and the strengths and weaknesses of your team.
  7. Identify common scenarios for the role, taking into consideration the personalities of the people involved. To do this, design open-ended questions that start with “how would you respond in a situation where [insert scenario] occurs?”  Ask these questions in multiple ways through different interviewers and of interviewees. How you ask the question is as important as the answers you get. Candidates may change or refine their own answers as they go. This is a valuable insight. You may learn as much about the people who are asking the questions as you do about the candidates themselves.
  8. Have domain experts assess prospects for the skills required to accomplish non-negotiable tasks. This may be in the form of an interview; it may be in the form of a sample work request. Or it may be in the form of an asssement given to the prospect.
  9. Take thorough notes.
  10. Reserve judgment until the end of the interview period.
  11. Observe the reactions of your cohort, and respectfully probe for specifics. Exchange observations. You may find there are other motivations at play. You may need to address them.
  12. Always return your attention to the list of non-negotiable tasks.
  13. Do not involve too many interviewers in the process. 2-3 interviewers per 1 candidate is ideal.
  14. Identify your top picks, taking into consideration the outcomes of all previous steps, and begin the offer process.
  15. At some time after the hire, personalities, skills, and abilities will grow more transparent. Adjust to them. Optimize for strengths, train where applicable, and minimize reliance on weaknesses. This is an iterative process.
  16. When you add or remove people from your team, expect to exceed in new areas and fall short in others.
  17. Always remember to ask, “How is this person smart?” rather than “Is this person smart?” and your team will almost always evolve for the better.

I leave you with my final thoughts. The fact is you will, without a doubt, work with people who do not wholly share your values, and who prioritize those values however they see fit, even when some—or many—overlap. In order to collaborate, we must commit to our differences as much as we commit to our similarities. Even if you think all this diversity stuff is a waste of time, you cannot ignore the numbers. According to an article by the American Sociological Association that cites to studies conducted by sociologist Cedric Herring:

“Companies reporting the highest levels of racial diversity brought in nearly 15 times more sales revenue on average than the lowest levels of racial diversity. Gender diversity accounted for a difference of ~$600 million in average sales revenue.” (6)

“For every percentage increase in the rate of racial or gender diversity up to the rate represented in the relevant population, there was an increase in sales revenues of approximately 9 and 3 percent, respectively.” (6)

“Companies with a more diverse workforce consistently reported higher customer numbers than those organizations with less diversity among staff. In terms of racial diversity, companies with the highest rates reported an average of 35,000 customers compared to 22,700 average customers among those companies with the lowest rates of racial diversity. The difference is even larger for gender diversity rates. That is, companies with the highest levels of gender diversity reported an average of 15,000 more customers than organizations with the lowest levels of gender diversity. Herring also found that the smallest incremental increase in levels of racial or gender diversity resulted in more than 400 and 200 additional customers, respectively.” (6)

When I think about racial equality, gender equality, and economic equality, I cannot help but think of the enormous power recruiters and hiring managers have to right the playing field and to launch us into more prosperous times. So please, if you care, seek truth. Seek kindness. Seek open-mindedness. Seek mutual respect. Seek, and you shall hire successfully.