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The Balance Between Hiring for Fit and Inclusion

Talent managers these days talk a lot about “hiring for fit” and the concept is sound. After all, to create and maintain a strong corporate culture, companies are well served to ensure that those they hire will fit into that culture.

But, there’s a flip side to this commonly held wisdom. Building a culture based on “fit” can serve to keep those who are “different” in some ways out of the organization. That can create risks both from an EEOC standpoint and, perhaps more importantly, from an innovation standpoint. If your organization is built of people who look, act and think the same what innovative ideas and opportunities might you be overlooking?

The Argument for Fit

Culture could be thought of the morals and mores that hold an organization together. That shared beliefs that define “how work gets done here.” Fit, we’re told, is an important factor that goes into determining whether, or not, an employee will be successful at an organization and organizations are uniquely known for their individual cultures.

Amazon, for instance, is reputed to be cut-throat and competitive. REI, on the other hand, is known for a culture where employees can give “life to their purpose.” It’s a team-based environment where employees collaborate rather than compete.

What makes a culture “good,” of course, will be highly dependent on each individual employee’s preferences. Competitive employees, for instance, may find Amazon to be a much better culture than REI. Those who prefer a collaborative environment, on the other hand, would be wise to steer clear of organizations like Amazon.

That dichotomy underlies the argument for hiring for fit, as many top companies—like Google, Southwest Airlines, Zappos and more are widely known to do.

But, in the process of hiring employees who “fit” are companies also at risk of minimizing the value that can come from diversity of thought—and background? Is a focus on a more inclusive, rather than homogeneous culture more beneficial?

The Argument for Inclusion

Diversity and inclusion are two closely tied concepts that a growing number of organizations are focused on today. Diversity generally refers to the differences among people. In a workplace, those differences might be related to sex, age, race, religion—and a wide range of other factors. Inclusion, in a work environment, refers to the ability to include—or allow—a wide range of thoughts and opinions to flourish. It’s not just about having a diverse workforce; it’s about ensuring that the diverse ideas of that diverse workforce can be leveraged.

Differences of opinions, and diversity of thought can lead to breakthrough thinking that can fuel innovation and lead to new discoveries—new products, new markets, new processes. If everybody thinks the same, common wisdom would suggest, breakthroughs are less likely to occur.

Bringing the Two Together

Can cultural fit and diversity coexist in an organization? Of course. The answer lies in ensuring that we are considering these constructs appropriately.

When we’re talking about cultural fit we’re talking about shared values or philosophies about how we will interact and work with each other. Fit shouldn’t be, as it sometimes is, used to consider how well you might “get along with” or “agree with” individuals. Fit, for instance, isn’t about ensuring that a high-tech company is staffed with Gen Y and Gen Z employees because Baby Boomers “aren’t like us.”

When we’re talking about diversity we’re not just talking about differences in the way we look. Importantly, we’re talking about—or should be talking about—differences in the ways we think, the unique background and perspectives we can bring to bear to ensure that conversations that take place can drive innovation. And, yes, our different ages, sex, ethnic backgrounds and religions all serve to provide us with important differing perspectives that can open new ways of approaching the work we do.

Southwest Airlines, for instance, has a strong cultural focus on customer service and fun. That means that hiring managers will look for employees who value serving others and value having fun. That doesn’t mean that they will avoid certain segments of employees based on perceptions that they “aren’t fun.”

Yes, it is okay to hire for fit when you’re looking for employees who will uphold your organization’s values based on objective criteria that indicate whether, or not, they will do so. No, it’s not okay to hire for fit and base decisions on biases or misperceptions. “Older people aren’t flexible.” “Women can’t be tough.” “White males are too conservative.”

For organizations to succeed in an increasingly competitive and increasingly faced-paced business environment they need to draw upon the input and wide range of backgrounds and opinions of employees they select to join their organizations. Cultural fit does not mean the employees you hire all look or think alike. It means that they have the likelihood of thinking differently, together, with a shared focus of supporting the organization’s mission, vision and values.

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