Why hiring for cultural fit is a bad idea

Solving one problems creates another.
Solving one problems creates another.
Image: AP Photos/Tony Avelar
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When Facebook was really starting to grow, Mark Zuckerberg asked other CEOs what they did to establish their company’s culture. Former Facebook culture manager Molly Graham told First Round Capital: “one of the best pieces of advice he got was to write down a succinct list of what it meant to be ‘one of us.’”

Working with people that we like inherently makes us happier and more productive. That’s why people tend to hire and invest in employees who remind them of themselves.

“If we work with people we have no respect for, or we don’t like them, it creates a lot of obstacles in the workplace, including increased turnover,” says Alon Zouaretz, who founded Talsona, a job-placement platform that places an emphasis on culture fit. Talsona COO Leah Eyler adds: “For each new hire, the average cost for 66% of companies reporting bad hires is $37,500 per bad hire, not including the collateral impact to teams.”

This is also part of why Silicon Valley is so insular. It’s safer to go with a distinct culture fit when time, a high burn rate, and investor money is on the line. PayPal co-founder Max Levchin, among other tech founders, have spoken to this. “There are some legendary-ish tales of me not hiring people because they used the wrong word in an interview,” he told First Round Capital. “I’m sure we had lots of false negatives, but we have very few false positives.”

While culture can be a strong draw to attract employees and create cohesiveness, this “one of us” ethos and what it represents has contributed to Silicon Valley’s diversity problem. A successful programmer wrote for Quartz about how companies openly share the skills and traits they’re looking for in job candidates, but there are often unspoken qualities that they search for to measure cultural fit:

The theme is familiar to anyone who’s tried to join a country club or high-school clique. It’s not supposed to make sense. The Culture can’t really be written about; it has to be experienced. You are expected to conform to the rules of The Culture before you are allowed to demonstrate your actual worth. … “Empirically,” people who wear suits don’t do well; therefore anyone in a suit is judged before they open their mouths.

Venture-backed startups especially don’t have the luxury of time, Lance Haun, who wrote 2013 Harvard Business Review article, “Don’t hire the perfect candidate” told Quartz. This means a reliable culture fit becomes top priority, Haun said: “One of the unfortunate things is that diversity has gone out the window for most of these organizations—it’s literally the last thing they think about.”

These companies are missing out on the sort of innovation that is only possible through diversity of thought. Employee auditions and an upgraded gig economy could put more focus on a candidate’s skills, as long as they’re not simply trials to determine culture fit. It’s now standard for larger, public tech companies to release figures around diversity, but the ethos around hiring at smaller companies is to worry about diversity later, once the company is established. Without pressure from VCs or more diversity among the ranks of those writing the checks, startups will continue to take a more narrow view of culture fit.