Before you use the phrase “culture fit” again, pause and ask yourself: what does it really mean to you? Its definition varies, even among those at the same company. Yet it’s commonly used in hiring decisions and even job descriptions.

Culture is ever-changing. As companies grow, team members add new ideas and perspectives into the mix, reshaping the stagnant definitions once held. That’s not a bad thing; it’s the catalyst to creativity and innovation, instead of replicating the status quo. Let your definition of “culture fit” be as fluid as the culture itself. Otherwise, you face the risk of excluding those who are different from you or your company’s current way of doing things.

Culture Fit

When I started as a recruiter at WillowTree, my idea of “culture fit” was based on the small handful of people I interacted with on a daily basis. Each candidate I met, I tried to picture them meeting said handful of people. I didn’t overcome this until I traveled to our larger office and met more people.

Over time, I watched people who didn’t fit my definition of “culture fit” get hired and thrive, while others who fit my mold did not. My category of who would and wouldn’t fit expanded. As the company grew, I eventually cut through the “culture fit” noise to hone in on the necessary skills and values needed to be successful. I moved beyond pattern matching to viewing people as the individuals they are and the value they bring.

In the hiring process, “culture fit” is frequently fraught with unconscious bias, giving people unearned advantages or disadvantages. Culture fit and the “like-me” bias can easily become a catchall phrase for inexplicable gut feelings. Yet, it’s subjective and reflects our own experience of the workplace. For example, one’s definition of culture fit may differ based on their tenure, position, and who they interact with day-to-day.

Shift from Culture Fit to Shared Values

Removing “culture fit” from hiring decisions won’t entirely eliminate unconscious bias, but it’s a step in the right direction. When I tell our interview team to remove culture fit from their vocab, I often get met with puzzled looks. They’re probably thinking, "so how can I respectfully tell you ‘this person is a jerk and I don’t want to work with them?’ when the reality is “soft” skills are just as important (and sometimes even more so) when building a team.

The key is to cut through those subjective gut feelings and push ourselves to connect our impressions with relevant facets of the job. Objectivity happens when we have structured, predefined criteria.

WillowTree has moved away from “culture fit” and instead looks for behaviors that exemplify our Core Values. Shifting our focus helps us hire people who share our company’s established goals, not necessarily our viewpoints or backgrounds.

More than a semantic change?

If you set out to simply swap vocab, you’re masking the problem, not solving for it. Here are ways to disentangle culture fit from values in a way that opens the door for diverse hiring:

  • Has your company defined its core values? If not, start here. This can be a major long-term feat, but start with the hiring team, or even smaller — the recruiting team. The purpose is to get everyone on the same page about the “fuzzier” criteria at the beginning — long before hiring decisions are made. This is the only way to ensure consistency and fairness across candidates, while avoiding individual bias.
  • Ensure your values are relevant to your company’s goals and tied to everyone’s success and efficacy. Otherwise, it may be arbitrary to the role and based on shared commonality or likeability (e.g., loves video games, shared alma mater). Values should be held company-wide and be accessible and relevant to everyone.
  • Make your core values transparent internally and externally. Showcase them on your website and marketing materials, providing a way for candidates to opt-in or opt-out from the beginning.
  • Openly discuss the core values along each step of the interview process. They shouldn’t be secret criteria used internally only to make final hiring decisions. Steer away from evaluating candidates on unwritten rules or norms only known to those already working here.

Core values should be unique enough to differentiate you as a company, but universal enough to be attainable by a diverse pool of candidates. For example, innate attributes (e.g., extraversion), pre-qualifying conditions (e.g., startup grit), or achievements (e.g. Ivy League smarts) can limit your talent pool. It can communicate a fixed mindset—the belief that talent is fixed, and either you have it, or you don’t.

Further, research shows men apply to jobs when they meet 60% of the qualifications, whereas women only apply when they meet 100% of the qualifications. It’s helpful to focus values around behaviors that contribute to success. Awesome candidates come from a variety of backgrounds, life experiences, and types of education.

Our goal is to hire those who can uphold our organization’s guiding principles while creating a balanced culture of diverse backgrounds, skill sets, and ideas. Our core values don’t disappear once someone is hired, but rather remain behaviors we strive for in our work.

What we really mean when we use “culture fit”

So before you use “culture fit” as a hiring rationale (either positively or negatively), did you really mean:

  • I didn’t (or did) feel a connection.
  • We don’t have a lot in common. Or they remind me of a younger version of myself.
  • I just couldn’t (or could) picture them working here
  • They didn’t (or did) pass the “go out for a beer test.”
  • They don’t dress or look like anyone here.
  • Not sure if they are like the rest of the team.
  • My gut tells me they will (or won’t) be a fit.

Subjective qualities like “fit” or “gut” can be influenced by similarity to yourself. To like yourself is a good thing, but it’s not always the best predictor of success. Instead, push to articulate the nebulous definition of culture fit with concrete examples of why someone would or would not thrive in your organization. Then corroborate and discuss with others on the team.

Culture Add

Taking this thinking a step further, it can be far more productive to think in terms of “culture add.” Instead of hiring to fit an existing mold, what are some qualities that could break the mold? Look around your team—who’s missing? What perspectives and ideas could they bring?

Our industry is constantly changing. Our clients’ (and their customers’) priorities are constantly changing. And we a need a culture just as fluid to keep up. Don’t be afraid to hire someone who’s unfamiliar to the organization. What got you to your current state won’t get you to where you want to be. Successfully hiring diverse talent is about looking forward, not behind.