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Mistaking likability for culture fit

Why Culture Fit Still Has a (Tiny) Place in Recruiting

The headlines collated in Human Resources Today tell the story of the rise and fall of culture fit in recruiting.

In February of 2015, readers were introduced to “The New Hiring Mantra: Finding Candidates with Great Cultural ‘Fit.’” But a few months later, the mantra had all but evaporated, as we saw the script flipped in pieces such as “Why ‘Culture Fit’ Means Nothing.” and “Moving Past ‘Culture Fit’ to ‘Culture Add.’”

The original meaning of culture fit in recruiting was hiring “for personalities and values, not just skills,” in hopes this would increase the likelihood of new employees’ success and happiness. But in May of 2015 a researcher reported in the New York Times that “in many organizations, fit has gone rogue.” More specifically, the phrase “culture fit” began to take on “more of a tribal meaning,” as a recent article in Forbes noted, becoming “a weaponized phrase interviewers use as a blanket term to reject candidates…the embodiment of unconscious bias.”

In other words, interviewers were taking culture fit to mean “likability.” Mistaking rapport for fit is an error human beings are programmed to make. Add that handicap to most people’s conscious preference to work alongside people with whom we think we could be friends, and you have a recipe for missing out on some great hires.


Unfortunately, finding a candidate likable during an interview is subject to all the same unconscious biases as our assessments of performance and skill. And science tells us that we’re more likely to hire a lovable fool than a competent jerk: even “a little extra likability goes a longer way than a little extra competence in making someone desirable to work with.”

We may feel rapport with a candidate with whom we share similar outward appearances, experiences, or hobbies. This mistaking rapport for fit can be as obvious as “a partner who was an avid Red Sox fan arguing for rejecting a Yankees supporter on the grounds of misfit.”

Or it can be less obvious. Maybe we were really hungry when we interviewed that last candidate right before lunch. We might learn during an interview that a candidate shares our love for a particular B-movie, or grew up two blocks away. These will all affect how likable we find someone, and, clearly, not one of them will accurately predict job performance. Nor are any of those circumstances likely to predict how well someone will fit it into an organization long-term. Someone who shares your passion for the Red Sox may not share your organization’s passion for its core values.  

As with unconscious bias, the “not a culture fit” excuse takes all forms. A culture that prides itself on nonconformity can end up so devoted to the principle that a conformity to nonconformity is required. One Silicon Valley veteran cites a story from a startup about a hapless interviewee turning up in a suit and tie. The interviewer insists, “we’re [not] so petty or strict about the dress code that we are going to disqualify him for not following an unwritten rule, but we know empirically that people who come in dressed in suits rarely work out well for our team.”

Rocking a suit and tie to an interview with a group of people who “know empirically” that people dressed in suits rarely work out clearly disqualified the applicant. Did the candidate’s values align with the company’s? Maybe. But the narrative suggests the faux pas of “overdressing” for the interview was seen as more indicative of fit.

Startups became infamous for using the “beer test” as a way of determining fit, that is, either taking a candidate out to drink or simply asking themselves, “Would we want to have a beer with this candidate?” But, of course, startups didn’t invent the promotion of insider culture. The beer test, whether literal or figurative, is simply the bro-culture version of the “airport test”: would I want to be stuck in an airport during a snowstorm with this person?

Mitigating Culture Fit Biases

Even if you’re considering a candidate despite not wanting to get tipsy with them, you could still be conflating likability with cultural fit. That’s because, in addition to our other unconscious biases, we’re also likely to prefer people who think and express themselves like we do, otherwise known as functional bias. In other words, we prefer people we like. Not surprisingly, this can translate into preferring candidates with whom you have the easiest rapport.

The good news is dispensing with the beer test doesn’t have to mean dismissing likability as a hiring consideration. While wearing a suit or being a fan of the wrong sports team isn’t indicative of performance, a candidate whose working style rubs team members the wrong way really may not be a good hire.

As with any unconscious bias, the first step to managing our tendency to overestimate the value of likability is to determine what values you objectively want in a new hire, including the company’s core values. These values can be used to determine “fit” between a candidate and the company, rather than the candidate and one personality. As you draft or re-examine your company’s core values, think about how each value translates into the organization’s practices or employee behavior. Then, standardize the questions you use to learn about a candidate’s values. Make sure the questions are:

      – Tied to a function of the role or practice of the team or company
      – Clearly defined and likely to elicit unambiguous responses
      – Tied to the company values
      – Considerate of the hiring team’s communication and collaborative style

As a counterweight to considerations of fit, ask “culture add” questions: what can this candidate bring to your organization’s culture? Will they energize it or nudge it in the right direction?

Assessments of a candidate’s responses should likewise be standardized, making it more difficult to privilege subjective reactions. Consciously ask yourself if what you like (or dislike) about a candidate personally may be impacting your evaluation of their performance potential.

Is culture fit dead? No, but if improperly approached, it will result in unfairly judged candidates. As with any unconscious bias, education and awareness are key. Be aware of how you respond to a candidate’s likability, explicitly incorporate likability as part of the assessment, and put concrete limits (in an ATS scorecard, for example) on how that much that can sway hiring decisions.