Culture

Reconsidering “Culture Fit:” A Theorem Case Study

By 
Christopher Clark
June 2021

Critics of hiring for “culture fit” are loud and many — is it time to retire the term altogether?

There’s a culture fit “fallout” happening within the tech industry. And considering the core of workplace culture itself has been upended by the pandemic, all functions within most organizations—particularly recruitment and hiring—are in a state of crisis-driven transformation.

Headlines—like “Why You Should Steer Clear Of Culture Fit In Hiring,” “Culture Fit is Outdated,” “The Dangers of Hiring for Culture Fit,” and even “Stop Hiring for ‘Cultural Fit’” — reveal a cross-section of generally valid concerns.

At Theorem, we’ve always believed that establishing and fostering a dynamic and positive company culture is essential to building effective teams. We’ve even been recognized for our approach to recruiting and retaining some of the globe’s top talent—most recently, Theorem was listed among Inc. Magazine’s Best Workplaces in 2021. But over the course of our fourteen years of experience matching thousands of engineers and designers with tech companies across the globe, our leadership has also become necessarily well-versed in the potential pitfalls of “culture fit” in today’s recruitment landscape.

As an organization, we recently decided that phrases like “culture fit” and “hiring for culture fit” — which have been increasingly criticized for their problematic connotations—were overdue to be retired from Theorem’s lexicon. We’ve begun to intentionally avoid this terminology in everything from informal conversations and internal meetings to external messaging and recruitment materials. And we’re certainly not the first organization to do so. Courtney Seiter wrote compellingly on the subject several years ago in Why We’ve Stopped Saying “Culture Fit” — and What We’re Saying Instead.

At Theorem, we’ve similarly opted to place more focus on identifying and defining the “values” that comprise our ever-evolving company culture. Likewise, we’ve shifted to terms like “alignment” to describe the ideal match between a candidate’s values and the values we espouse as an organization.

Why Would We Cancel “Culture Fit”?

Because words matter. Some of the ways companies used “culture fit” assessments in the past have contributed to problematic sociological trends in the workforce–and within tech more specifically–a fact that has been (and continues to be) well-documented. Workplace homogeneity and unnecessarily exclusionary criteria or procedures are just a few examples of what goes wrong when we’re unintentional, careless, or even simply complacent with “what’s worked in the past.”

Imagine any of the following scenarios:

  • A female candidate is invited for a finalist-round interview via conference call with a hiring team unintentionally composed of six men. When she exits the call, the hiring team debriefs and determines she may not be a good culture fit. She seemed uncomfortable, or to lack confidence, during the conversation. Though some may be thinking it, no one mentions that the imbalance of gender and power could explain these apparent shortcomings.
  • An advertising firm only hires candidates who hold undergraduate degrees. By definition, this excludes a whole group of candidates who are more creative or artistic but less academic. They decide to change their policy to encourage applicants without undergraduate degrees; one year later, almost all of their hiring managers still only offer interviews to candidates who do have degrees, revealing what has moved from a conspicuously restrictive policy to an invisibly exclusionary set of habits.
  • An employee referral program begins at an organization with an abundance of support from leadership and staff alike. Two years later, internal research reveals that more than 80% of candidates hired during that period were selected as finalists because of their personal or professional history with or connection to someone who already works for the organization. Morale among staff members of traditionally marginalized people groups begins to suffer, as referral-based hiring is notorious for exacerbating workforce disadvantages among women and people of color.
Ideas that break the status quo, right in your inbox.

Why is an Alternative to “Culture Fit” Needed to Improve Hiring Practice?

The high price tag attached to hiring and onboarding means companies must be strategically selective, and Theorem is no exception to this rule. We are continuously revisiting and reiterating our talent acquisition strategies to create a workplace that just “clicks.” Of course, we want our employees to succeed and get along with their coworkers. We want them to like doing their work and communicating with their team each day. We want them to feel ownership, empowerment, and investment in your organization’s cultural principles and values. This only makes sense (and cents): Compelling research confirms that companies benefit financially from prioritizing diversity among candidates and hires, which requires casting the widest net possible (and here’s more on what happens when we don’t).

But the fact remains—employing some manner of exclusionary criteria is unavoidable once we’re tasked with sifting through a large candidate pool. Here lies the juncture at which, thankfully, we can be trained and taught to model an efficient talent acquisition process that also avoids bias and achieves our diversity and equity goals.

Theorem’s founder, Will Jessup, often talks about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable and the importance of examining what has and hasn’t worked in the past; he remarked in a recent Journal article how crucial it is to “have leadership that really listens, is curious, and is willing to be challenged all the time. If we’re not,” he says, “nothing else is going to work.”

  • Make sure your hiring officers ask questions and lead interview discussions that are less influenced by what’s been called the “similar-to-me” effect. Remember that you aren’t seeking shared backgrounds but rather a shared enthusiasm for your organization’s mission and purpose.
  • If your human resources department cannot quantify what value alignment means to your organization, consider standardizing a comparative instrument/rubric. Hiring teams that can score — and compare scores — regarding the values that matter most are more likely to emphasize objective facts and fairness over merely subjective impressions or, worse, unintentional discrimination.
  • Take care not to overly rely on or too heavily incentivize employee referrals. Recent research shows that, regardless of job title, industry, or location, white women are 12% less likely, men of color 26% less likely, and women of color 35% less likely to receive a referral.
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Critics of hiring for “culture fit” are loud and many — is it time to retire the term altogether?

There’s a culture fit “fallout” happening within the tech industry. And considering the core of workplace culture itself has been upended by the pandemic, all functions within most organizations—particularly recruitment and hiring—are in a state of crisis-driven transformation.

Headlines—like “Why You Should Steer Clear Of Culture Fit In Hiring,” “Culture Fit is Outdated,” “The Dangers of Hiring for Culture Fit,” and even “Stop Hiring for ‘Cultural Fit’” — reveal a cross-section of generally valid concerns.

At Theorem, we’ve always believed that establishing and fostering a dynamic and positive company culture is essential to building effective teams. We’ve even been recognized for our approach to recruiting and retaining some of the globe’s top talent—most recently, Theorem was listed among Inc. Magazine’s Best Workplaces in 2021. But over the course of our fourteen years of experience matching thousands of engineers and designers with tech companies across the globe, our leadership has also become necessarily well-versed in the potential pitfalls of “culture fit” in today’s recruitment landscape.

As an organization, we recently decided that phrases like “culture fit” and “hiring for culture fit” — which have been increasingly criticized for their problematic connotations—were overdue to be retired from Theorem’s lexicon. We’ve begun to intentionally avoid this terminology in everything from informal conversations and internal meetings to external messaging and recruitment materials. And we’re certainly not the first organization to do so. Courtney Seiter wrote compellingly on the subject several years ago in Why We’ve Stopped Saying “Culture Fit” — and What We’re Saying Instead.

At Theorem, we’ve similarly opted to place more focus on identifying and defining the “values” that comprise our ever-evolving company culture. Likewise, we’ve shifted to terms like “alignment” to describe the ideal match between a candidate’s values and the values we espouse as an organization.

Why Would We Cancel “Culture Fit”?

Because words matter. Some of the ways companies used “culture fit” assessments in the past have contributed to problematic sociological trends in the workforce–and within tech more specifically–a fact that has been (and continues to be) well-documented. Workplace homogeneity and unnecessarily exclusionary criteria or procedures are just a few examples of what goes wrong when we’re unintentional, careless, or even simply complacent with “what’s worked in the past.”

Imagine any of the following scenarios:

  • A female candidate is invited for a finalist-round interview via conference call with a hiring team unintentionally composed of six men. When she exits the call, the hiring team debriefs and determines she may not be a good culture fit. She seemed uncomfortable, or to lack confidence, during the conversation. Though some may be thinking it, no one mentions that the imbalance of gender and power could explain these apparent shortcomings.
  • An advertising firm only hires candidates who hold undergraduate degrees. By definition, this excludes a whole group of candidates who are more creative or artistic but less academic. They decide to change their policy to encourage applicants without undergraduate degrees; one year later, almost all of their hiring managers still only offer interviews to candidates who do have degrees, revealing what has moved from a conspicuously restrictive policy to an invisibly exclusionary set of habits.
  • An employee referral program begins at an organization with an abundance of support from leadership and staff alike. Two years later, internal research reveals that more than 80% of candidates hired during that period were selected as finalists because of their personal or professional history with or connection to someone who already works for the organization. Morale among staff members of traditionally marginalized people groups begins to suffer, as referral-based hiring is notorious for exacerbating workforce disadvantages among women and people of color.
Ideas that break the status quo, right in your inbox.

Why is an Alternative to “Culture Fit” Needed to Improve Hiring Practice?

The high price tag attached to hiring and onboarding means companies must be strategically selective, and Theorem is no exception to this rule. We are continuously revisiting and reiterating our talent acquisition strategies to create a workplace that just “clicks.” Of course, we want our employees to succeed and get along with their coworkers. We want them to like doing their work and communicating with their team each day. We want them to feel ownership, empowerment, and investment in your organization’s cultural principles and values. This only makes sense (and cents): Compelling research confirms that companies benefit financially from prioritizing diversity among candidates and hires, which requires casting the widest net possible (and here’s more on what happens when we don’t).

But the fact remains—employing some manner of exclusionary criteria is unavoidable once we’re tasked with sifting through a large candidate pool. Here lies the juncture at which, thankfully, we can be trained and taught to model an efficient talent acquisition process that also avoids bias and achieves our diversity and equity goals.

Theorem’s founder, Will Jessup, often talks about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable and the importance of examining what has and hasn’t worked in the past; he remarked in a recent Journal article how crucial it is to “have leadership that really listens, is curious, and is willing to be challenged all the time. If we’re not,” he says, “nothing else is going to work.”

  • Make sure your hiring officers ask questions and lead interview discussions that are less influenced by what’s been called the “similar-to-me” effect. Remember that you aren’t seeking shared backgrounds but rather a shared enthusiasm for your organization’s mission and purpose.
  • If your human resources department cannot quantify what value alignment means to your organization, consider standardizing a comparative instrument/rubric. Hiring teams that can score — and compare scores — regarding the values that matter most are more likely to emphasize objective facts and fairness over merely subjective impressions or, worse, unintentional discrimination.
  • Take care not to overly rely on or too heavily incentivize employee referrals. Recent research shows that, regardless of job title, industry, or location, white women are 12% less likely, men of color 26% less likely, and women of color 35% less likely to receive a referral.
Sources

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To learn more, contact our team at 1-888-969-2983 or hello@theorem.co.

To learn more, contact our team at 1-888-969-2983 or hello@theorem.co.

Get in Contact With Us

To learn more, contact our team at 1-888-969-2983 or hello@theorem.co.

Christopher Clark

Head of Talent Acquisition, Theorem

Chris leads Talent Acquisition for Theorem, including overseeing our sourcing, recruiting, and vetting functions. Chris brings hands-on, front-line implementation experience to the creation and management of our most critical asset class: talent. Prior to his role as Head of Talent Acquisition, Chris helped to design Theorem’s proprietary Product Manager hiring and training programs, contributing to Theorem’s industry-leading talent pool of Product professionals.

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Head of Talent Acquisition, Theorem

Chris leads Talent Acquisition for Theorem, including overseeing our sourcing, recruiting, and vetting functions. Chris brings hands-on, front-line implementation experience to the creation and management of our most critical asset class: talent. Prior to his role as Head of Talent Acquisition, Chris helped to design Theorem’s proprietary Product Manager hiring and training programs, contributing to Theorem’s industry-leading talent pool of Product professionals.

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