HR professionals are talking a lot about "hiring for fit," and the concept seems sound. After all, to create and maintain a strong corporate culture, companies would seem well-served to ensure that new hires will fit into that culture. But is there a flip side to this commonly held wisdom? Could building a culture based on "fit" keep out those who are different in some way? Does it create equal employment opportunity risks? Are innovators being excluded? How can HR leaders help their companies find the right balance?
Elizabeth L. Malatestinic is a senior lecturer in human resources management at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business in Indianapolis. "Hiring for fit makes a great deal of sense on many fronts," she said. But, she added, HR leaders need to make sure that hiring for fit doesn't result in discrimination.
In August, a Google engineer wrote a memo to his peers about his belief that women aren't biologically suited to be great engineers. It didn't go over well.
"It doesn't take a great leap of the imagination to think that, when people with similar attitudes—such as 'women aren't suited to tech jobs'—start to hire for 'fit,' their biases will rule the day, even if those biases are often subconscious."
In truth, she said, most people who are discriminating don't realize that they're doing so. That's where an opportunity for HR arises—and a responsibility.
Clarify Hiring Strategy
HR needs to play a role in making clear what is meant by "fit," said Tony Boyce, a partner and analytics and assessment thought leader at Aon Hewitt in the New York City area. Leaving these decisions up to hiring managers, he said, may result in "veering a bit too far on the fit dimension without recognizing some of the inclusion factors that could make someone complementary to the culture as opposed to an explicit fit."
Organizations committed to hiring based on cultural fit need to define the cultural values of the organization and use that information to inform the process, Boyce said. His recommendation: "Use some sort of objective cultural fit assessment that has been tailored to the organization and that helps to identify people that are likely to be a good fit, or a poor fit." Ideally, he added, these types of assessments should screen out people who are most likely to be a poor fit or a misfit—those most likely to create discord if hired.
Be Alert to Unintentional Bias
There are some important warning signs that HR should be looking for during discussions about desired candidate traits, explained Steven Bleistein, CEO of Relansa, Inc., a consulting firm based in Japan, and the author of Rapid Organizational Change (Wiley & Sons, 2017). In his experience, "I see inclusion compromised for reasons of fit when managers say things like, 'Well, my concern is that he is typically Japanese—you know, he won't take any risk, come up with new ideas or ever give a candid opinion,' or 'I'm not sure I want to promote her to a leadership position because the other managers won't follow a woman,' or 'We need a Westerner on the team or at least someone who has spent a lot of time in the U.S. or Europe who will be aggressive in bringing in new business.' "
The problem here "is linking assumptions about fit to populations, rather than to individuals," he said.
In making hiring decisions, the focus should be on behavioral indicators, not demographic traits. In a situation where "high energy" is used as a hiring criterion, Boyce said: "We have to be careful to make sure we're not just using age as a proxy for energy." Therefore, he said, it's important to clearly define traits in behavioral and operational terms.
There is danger in attempting to hire for "perfect cultural fit," he said. "If you've got everyone in the organization the same, from a culture fit perspective, there are dangers of falling into patterns of groupthink, for example. There are dangers of falling into the path of exclusion, rather than inclusion." His recommendation follows Boyce's: Focus on screening out those who are likely to be a poor cultural fit, or discordant with the organization, rather than screening in those who are a "perfect" fit.
Defining the company culture may sound good in principle, but what does it mean in practice?
Charles Krugel, an HR attorney and counselor based in the Chicago area, takes a pragmatic focus to advising HR leaders on how to manage the balance between fit and inclusion. The best starting points, he said, are the employee handbook and job descriptions.
"Although these documents aren't usually legally required, they help to define an organization's mission and culture and provide other strategic insights into it. They can also help to defeat allegations of employment discrimination," he said.
Regulatory agencies like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have, in some respects, established parameters for determining the balance between fit and inclusion, Krugel said. "When a company has a policy or practice that illegally disparately impacts against a legally protected class—such as race, gender, national origin, age, disability, etc.—or differentially treats such a class, that company will need to prove its innocence by showing that its culture and practices are nondiscriminatory."
In addition to having a handbook and job descriptions, Krugel advises companies to also publicize their values, mission and culture so that potential employees can assess whether they're capable of fitting in. "This type of transparency tends to be popular with judges and regulatory agencies as well, so that's potentially another layer of protection for an organization," he said.
Practical Steps for HR Leaders
"HR professionals are responsible for bringing in the best talent and ensuring that groupthink doesn't result in excluding talented people," Malatestinic said. "Make it clear that you hire for skills. If someone is a misfit to the culture—prefers to work alone but it's a very collaborative culture, for example—that's a legitimate reason not to hire," she said, but added that "HR needs to be vigilant when 'fit' is given as a reason to hire—is that fit related to gender, age, racial background? Or is it related to skills and attitude? HR has to be clear in demonstrating the difference."
Beth Zoller, an attorney and legal editor with XpertHR, an HR compliance information services provider based in the New York City area, gave these tips to help HR minimize risk when attempting to find a balance between fit and inclusion:
- Hire from the broadest pool of applicants. Go beyond recruiting from the same education programs. Go beyond word-of-mouth hires.
- Use neutral job descriptions focusing on the essential job requirements and the requisite merit, education and skills needed for each position.
- Identify the company's core values and how a person who is a strong cultural fit best represents these values.
- Have a wide panel of interviewers from a variety of backgrounds interview job candidates.
- Focus on what the individual will be able to bring to the company based on his or her experience and how that will advance the company's goals, mission, sales and success.
- Make inclusion a goal during the onboarding process.
The bottom line, said Hugh Blane, president of Claris Consulting in Normandy Park, Wash., is that HR leaders and hiring managers "can't and shouldn't" attempt to balance fit and inclusion. Instead, he suggested, "what can be done is create a culture that welcomes and fosters strategic diversity—diversity in thoughts, experiences and expertise—to get higher results."
He recommended focusing on three key characteristics: love, talent and value. Hire people, he said, "who love what they do, who have demonstrable high levels of skill and who have track records of providing high value to customers."