Does Hiring Based on "Cultural Fit" Encourage Discrimination?

Published: Jun 01, 2015

 Consulting       Finance       Interviewing       Job Search       Workplace Issues       
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My first job after graduating college was working as a financial analyst for an investment bank in New York. A couple weeks into that first job, one of the associates I worked with told me how the behind-the-scenes decision making process went in my hiring: The managing director of the group in which I worked wanted to hire another candidate with a higher GPA and better (more directly-related) internships. However, this associate, an alumnus of the same college I went to, as well as a member of the same fraternity I’d been in, pushed hard for me to be hired over the other guy, saying that I was a better fit with the group. Which I understood to mean that the associate (who graduated years before me so we didn’t overlap at school) liked me better than the other candidate, thought he had more in common with me than him, and could see himself drinking beer with me after work more often than he could with the other guy.

I mention this because today “fit” and “cultural fit” are popular recruiting words used to describe a good part of the decision making process when it comes to who gets hired and who doesn’t. And here at Vault, when we survey banks, law firms, and consulting firms, employees in large numbers tell us that “fit” is among the most important aspects of determining who belongs and who doesn’t within the ranks of their firms.

For example, here’s one Goldman Sachs employee from our 2014 Banking Survey (emphasis added is mine): “We are seeking people with a strong cultural fit who are quick learners, independent, and professional; smart candidates with unique capabilities such as in sports, art, literature, etc.” Here's another Goldman insider: “Technically unqualified candidates get cut early; later rounds focus on fit and long-term potential.” And here’s a McKinsey insider speaking to us in our 2014 Consulting Survey: “The interview process is rigorous and increasingly aims not only to determine if a candidate is a good fit but to give recruits a good glimpse into the firm and their potential career path upon joining.”

At a glance, the practice of hiring based on fit doesn’t seem to be much of a problem, and even makes sense. If you describe fit as “you have a similar outlook to us when it comes to your work ethic, how you approach problems, and how you work in a team and on your own,” then there’s probably a better chance a candidate who fits well will succeed at the firm and stay for a fairly long time. However, the problem is that, too often, fit and cultural fit mean something to the effect of “you are like us in that you look like us, appreciate the same kind of food as us, come from the same racial and socioeconomic background as us, support the same professional sports team as us, even are the same gender as us.”

Which is exactly what Lauren Rivera, a professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, found when “researching the hiring practices of the country’s top investment banks, management consultancies, and law firms”—where, she says, “fit has gone rogue.”

Fit was not about a match with organizational values. It was about personal fit. In these time- and team-intensive jobs, professionals at all levels of seniority reported wanting to hire people with whom they enjoyed hanging out and could foresee developing close relationships with. Fit was different from the ability to get along with clients. Fundamentally, it was about interviewers’ personal enjoyment and fun. Many, like one manager at a consulting firm, believed that “when it’s done right, work is play.”
To judge fit, interviewers commonly relied on chemistry. “The best way I could describe it,” one member of a law firm’s hiring committee told me, “is like if you were on a date. You kind of know when there’s a match.” Many used the “airport test.” As a managing director at an investment bank put it, “Would I want to be stuck in an airport in Minneapolis in a snowstorm with them?”

Further, Rivera claims that the practice of defining fit as personality fit is getting dangerously close to crossing the discriminatory line. And she presents a strong case. Here are more of her findings.

Discovering shared experiences was one of the most powerful sources of chemistry, but interviewers were primarily interested in new hires whose hobbies, hometowns and biographies matched their own. Bonding over rowing college crew, getting certified in scuba, sipping single-malt Scotches in the Highlands or dining at Michelin-starred restaurants was evidence of fit; sharing a love of teamwork or a passion for pleasing clients was not. Some (former) athletes fit exclusively with other athletes; others fit only with those who played the same sport. At one hiring committee meeting I attended, I watched a partner who was an avid Red Sox fan argue for rejecting a Yankees supporter on the grounds of misfit.

Warning to employers: aside from the fact that the practice is nearing discriminatory territory, there’s the fact that diverse workforces have been shown to make better business decisions than homogenous ones. As Rivera puts it, “Too much similarity can lead to teams that are overconfident, ignore vital information and make poor (or even unethical) decisions.”

Which reminds me that, in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, there were many observers, including this one, who thought it very possible that if there had been more women in decision making roles at some of the world’s leading financial institutions at the time, a crisis on the magnitude of the one that hit us could have largely been avoided.

In any case, I’m curious: How do you define cultural fit? And do you think hiring based on fit is a form of discrimination? Let me know in the comments below.

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Read More:
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Forget Goldman and McKinsey, Take a Gap Year Instead
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