Companies – especially companies in Silicon Valley – have long prized the idea of culture fit. Culture fit is, as a concept, a little bit nebulous, but in general it refers to the idea that a candidate “fits in” with the existing company and team dynamics. On the surface, this seems like a great idea. After all, why wouldn’t you want to hire someone who seems like a good match for your engineering team? The thinking is that they’ll integrate into the team more easily and have easier interactions with their fellow team members.
So what’s the problem?
The issue is that recruiting and hiring based on culture fit has an unintended consequence: it leads to homogenous engineering teams. This can negatively impact your engineering team, your company culture as a whole, and your bottom line.
Hiring for culture fit is based on the idea that people who have similar viewpoints and ways of working will form a cohesive team. But this premise, if left unchecked, leads to teams full of people who have similar backgrounds, viewpoints, and working styles – and a glaring lack of diversity. (And it’s not just the kinds of diversity that usually get talked about, like gender and race, that suffer. It also homogenizes things like experience, age, working style, problem-solving methods, and more.) If interviewers prioritize finding people they think they’d get along well (and easily) with, then they’re deprioritizing other, more important factors like technical skills. Remember, they’re trying to hire engineers, not friends!
Prioritizing culture fit creates engineering teams full of people who are very similar to each other, in an industry that already suffers from a noticeable lack of diversity. Culture fit often simply codifies a hiring team’s unconscious biases. After all, people tend to want to hire people like themselves! As Tigran Sloyan, the CEO of CodeSignal, put it:
The biggest problem with diversity in tech is that humans are too involved in the skill evaluation process. We tend to like people who have a similar background to ours, which creates a self-reinforcing cycle.
In an effort to find candidates who “fit in” well with your company’s engineering team, odds are you’ll end up recruiting people who come from very similar backgrounds. Maybe this means that they went to the same few schools, or worked at the same handful of companies. And relying on employee referrals, a common practice in many companies, can exacerbate this problem. Employees often refer friends or people from their social circles – another form of culture fit.
Culture fit moves from being fairly innocuous (“Is this person’s working style similar to mine?”) to being problematic (“Does this person come from a background like mine?”) easily, and often unnoticed.
Who gets left out?
Think about who gets omitted when you recruit based on culture fit: People who went to the wrong school – or no school at all. Developers who’ve spent their career in a different industry. Candidates who just don’t “look like an engineer” or “act like a software developer.” People who have different working styles or needs. The list goes on and on. Hiring for culture fit tends to reduce your candidate pool down to a small, homogenous group. And it does little towards increasing diversity at your company.
The benefits of diversity
We often think about diversity in terms of race and gender. But the term also covers age, background, experience, points of view, working and communication styles, and talents. A truly diverse team won’t be homogenous on any of these points, and everyone will bring unique perspectives and ideas to the table.
This means that a team composed of people who have different backgrounds and experiences will generate more – and more interesting ideas – simply because of the fact that they have different points of view. Innovation will blossom. And once your company truly commits to supporting diversity, a new form of self-reinforcing cycle will start. But it will be a good one this time! A team that is already diverse is seen as more welcoming of diversity. So the kind of diverse talent that you want to attract will be more interested in joining your company.
The benefits of diversity can be fiscal as well. According to several studies, diverse companies are often both more successful and more profitable than non-diverse companies.
5 steps to avoid the culture fit trap
So how can your company avoid falling in to the culture fit trap in your recruiting and hiring processes?
1. Focus on skills
The number one thing to do to avoid the culture fit trap? Prioritize skills instead. This is the primary goal of skills-based recruiting, of course. By putting skill assessment right at the top of the recruiting funnel, you ensure that only qualified candidates make it to the interview stage. Coding assessments that use machine learning to quantify technical skills, like the ones the CodeSignal Recruiter Test application supports, are great for this. No one can argue with numbers!
2. Make sure they’re the right skills
However, make sure that your company’s coding assessments don’t reinforce existing biases. You don’t want a situation where the engineers who set up the coding assessments bring their own beliefs into the mix! If their unconscious biases skew towards believing that only computer science graduates from top schools can do a job well, their assessment will reflect that. But if a company is honest and objectively thinks about the skills the job actually requires, they can create a coding assessment that will filter for people with the right on-the-job skills, regardless of race, age, gender, orientation, or background. (Learn more about how to craft a coding assessment that will test for the right skills.)
3. Be specific with feedback
Don’t let hiring teams rely on culture fit when they’re deciding whether to move on to the next stage with a candidate. When they’re reviewing a candidate, they need to provide specific feedback that relies on objective data from the screening or interview. This keeps the focus on the candidate’s skills, instead of allowing imprecise “gut feelings” to determine whether they get hired or not.
4. Don’t mistake soft skills for technical skills
Don’t go overboard on letting a candidate’s soft skills influence your decisions. One reason that the culture fit trap is so insidious is that we’re hardwired to want to hire someone who’s likeable. But just because someone communicates well and gets along with the team doesn’t mean they have the necessary technical skills. That’s why it’s important to assess skills objectively!
5. Think about value add
Of course, intangibles and soft skills are important too when you’re recruiting engineers. If a candidate is a good programmer but was rude during an interview, you probably wouldn’t want to hire them. But how can you avoid relying on culture fit when you’re considering a candidate’s soft skills? By thinking in terms of value add instead. What will this person add to your team? If you look at recruiting and hiring this way, it’s easy to see how bringing in people with diverse backgrounds and experiences will be beneficial to your engineering team.
Remember: Focus on a candidate’s skills, but make sure you’re measuring the right skills. Make your hiring team give specific feedback that relies on data. Don’t be swayed by a candidate’s soft skills. But do consider what their value add to the team will be! By following these five steps, you can avoid the culture fit trap in your company’s recruiting and hiring processes. This will create an environment in which engineers from diverse backgrounds will be excited to join your team!
CodeSignal Recruiter is a skills-based recruiting tool for modern hiring teams that helps companies source, test, and measure technical talent. We’re on a mission to make sure that you’re only talking to the best candidates at every part of your hiring process.
CodeSignal Recruiter gives your hiring team the tools you need to stop hiring for culture fit, and start hiring based on skills. Interested in seeing what CodeSignal Recruiter can do for you? Sign up today for a free demo!