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How being a 'cultural fit' is used against women at work

Close up of creative business colleagues listening to an informal presentation in a meeting room
Having a diverse range of employees can help boost creative thinking, improve decision-making and also boost performance. Photo: Getty

When hiring, it’s not just what is on a candidate’s CV that counts. As an employer, you want to make sure the new hire not only has the ability and experience to do the job, but also the right attitude to get along with everyone else.

Hiring people that align with your company’s culture is one of those concepts that is great in theory. After all, most employers want people to get along and work towards the same goal.

But there is increasing concern that hiring based on cultural fit is a veil for discrimination — and when someone is told they aren’t the right fit, it may be because they’re a woman, too working class, too foreign or too old to fit in.

Over two years, Professor Lauren Rivera of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management conducted 120 interviews with hiring professionals at elite firms, with 40 each in banking, consulting and Big Law.

READ MORE: How gender bias affects feedback and performance reviews

Rivera asked the hiring professionals specific questions about what they were looking for from an interviewee, as well as who they had previously recruited. She also asked them to comment on a set of mock candidates.

By the time an applicant had jumped through the hoops and made it to the interview stage, Rivera found, they were more likely to be assessed on their similarity to the interviewer. She found that when interviewers said they “clicked” or “had chemistry” with a candidate, they often meant that they shared a similar background. Whether or not they had the right skills for the job became less important.

One hiring professional described it as the Stranded In the Airport Test: “Would I want to be stuck in an airport in a snowstorm with them? And if I’m on a business trip for two days and I have to have dinner with them, is this the kind of person I enjoy hanging with?”

Being likeable is important. But the key problem is that our view of who is “good fit” is subjective — and can contain unconscious gendered, socio-economic and racial bias. Interviewers are also often influenced by ‘looking-glass merit’, in which managers assess a candidate’s future job success based on how closely the candidate mirrors their own life experiences. And if interviewers are predominantly male, white and wealthy, it inevitably leads to a lack of diversity in workplaces.

There are many reasons why making sure our workplaces are inclusive is important. Not only is it morally right, but having a diverse range of employees can help boost creative thinking, improve decision-making and also boost performance. “Highly inclusive” organisations generate 1.4 times more revenue and are 120% more capable of meeting financial targets, according to Deloitte research.

Hiring people that fit with a company’s culture isn’t necessarily the problem, however. Rather, we need to rethink what the term “culture fit” actually means — and consider how diverse candidates can add to culture, instead of fitting into it.

READ MORE: How cultural bias affects your chances in a job interview

A company’s culture can be seen as the values and beliefs of the company, as well as the behaviours and experiences that make up the working environment. Some firms may put an emphasis on a good work-life balance, for example, which may mean employees go home on time and flexible working is encouraged.

And it’s important, too. Research from Glassdoor Economic Research, based on analysis of employee reviews, has found that culture and values are the biggest driver of employee satisfaction in the UK.

It’s natural for employers to want to assess candidates on their attitude to work, motivations and values. Making sure a company has a shared goal can lead to a happier workforce, higher retention rates and better engagement. But it’s essential to tackle the preconceived ideas of what those values look like.