On Diversity, Culture Fit, and Bias
Recently I did something stupid.
On Twitter (I think you can see where this is going) I came across an open-ended tweet: what's the worst interview question that you've even been asked?
Benign right? And to be fair, strangely interesting. So I delved into the commentary expecting to find egregious questions from evil interviewers. There were some awful examples to be sure, but then I came across one where the interviewer asked about interests outside of work that I didn't think was that bad. Without much thought I naively replied:
Disagree here actually, this is to determine culture fit which is arguably one of the most relevant determinations to make.— Kyle Hauptfleisch (@Kylefrankwhite) March 1, 2020
Now, let me reiterate: I didn't think it through much before posting. Had I taken the time, I would have seen that interests outside of work are not necessarily a good indication of culture fit. Sure, that question can indicate other skills and attributes that may be beneficial to determining how suited someone is for a particular job but, for individuals that are more private, it can be intrusive. I would never, however, have anticipated the hostility that came from those disagreeing with my opinion, many of which were pushing tolerance and inclusion–go figure.
My point was that businesses are people and that those people need to get along in order to create value. The example I used to illustrate this point was a hunter applying for a job in a team of vegans. Now, regardless of whether they should get along or not–that is a whole other debate–I believe that sort of dynamic is unlikely to be sustainable. And as a business owner, that likelihood is something you would want to navigate.
Apparently, I was wrong:
They didn't miss your point Kyle. You're missing a very fundamental basis of diversity. You should take some time to read and reflect on what others are saying, and challenge your assumptions. Start with https://t.co/jX9x62LtZ5— Zachary Iles (@zackisland) March 1, 2020
You are one of the main problems with the tech industry. That’s it. If you can’t see that you need to talk to more people who aren’t like you.— Aspen James (@queer_coder) March 2, 2020
I eventually conceded the 'outside interests' part, but maintained that culture fit was and is an important element to company success.
To give more context to those that are not willing to wade through the debate on Twitter, the general argument against me comprised:
- asking about interests outside of work can introduce biases, has nothing to do with the job, and is inappropriate;
- hiring for culture fit propagates homogenous teams which don't perform as well as diverse teams; and
- culture fit itself is an affront against diversity and is laced with inherent and unconscious biases.
And this excludes the countless personal comments about my inherent biases.
I like to assume I am wrong, however, I don't act like that in a debate because, of course, I am in a debate; I am arguing a point and in doing so, I am digging into my understanding of, and gathering more information about, my and my opposition's position. Afterwards, though, I will go and examine the studies that were so fervently hoist upon me, read more, think more, discuss it with people (from both sides of the debate), and update my position accordingly. This is what I did over the days that followed, with some interesting results.
The first–and most obvious–realisation I had was the differing (read: assumed) definitions of what "culture fit" actually is. The best definition I found is:
Culture fit means that employees' beliefs and behaviors are in alignment with their employer's core values and company culture.
But most of the definitions I found were similar to this sentiment in some way.
What I also noticed is that many of the people arguing against culture fit–and this includes some studies–seem to assume that its definition is closer to "hiring people that are like you." Yet, I couldn't find one 'official' definition that even broadly insinuated that message.
This, in itself, can explain a lot of the miscommunication happening in the debates about culture fit and diversity, of which there are a lot.
The second thing I noticed is that there was a severe lack of nuance. Statements seemed to be generally applied and with a lot of confidence. Moreover, there is almost an incessant effort to avoid being pulled into the big picture. Examples are attacked based on their own acute application rather than the underlying point that they are trying to make. I'll give two examples:
- The initial question. Asking about someone's interests outside of work can be intrusive and it can introduce more biases. But that depends on who is being interviewed and who is conducting the interview. Just because it can be the case doesn't mean it is the case. Some people might feel like the question is an intrusion, and in some cases it could be, but sometimes the interviewer just wants to see if there are additional skills that might be applicable. Someone that plays a musical instrument will have needed to cultivate some discipline, as an example.
- My example of a hunter taking a job at a company of vegans. Again, it was an extreme, acute example to illustrate an underlying point: businesses are people and people need to get a long in order to work together. I was not saying that all vegans are unhappy working with hunters, or that all hunters are intolerant of ethical animal treatment. I was merely saying that humans sometimes do not get along, that people need to get along at least to some degree in a business, and that knowing their interests might be part of avoiding potential conflict. Yet some responded that they were vegan and were quite happy to work with hunters, as if a one-man sample size is conclusive evidence.
Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to completely segregate who you are in general from who you are at work. Personal after-hour things shouldn't matter at work, but sometimes they just do. Hiring to avoid potential conflicts makes sense because the alternative is costly. An employer is required to identify and mitigate risk of interpersonal conflict and often this leaves them with an impossible choice of tactics:
- open communication (which might be intrusive);
- making a decision without open communication (which might be discriminatory); or
- risking the conflict (which might be costly).
Besides, culture fit or questions about interests outside of work, are not the only criteria in an interview. It is part of a series of assessments that help the company representative determine if this person is likely to do well in that specific environment. Hiring on culture fit alone is obviously a really risky move.
While biases are an unfortunate reality, avoiding situations in case biases come up doesn't seem like a good way of dealing with them. Communication and awareness seem a far better route. And if an interviewer is being unconsciously bias, mature conversation can be an effective method of bringing their attention to it. Usually, anger, condescension, and attack are not the stand-out options.
If an interviewer is unfairly bias, the responsibility sits with the interviewer not the question. Avoiding situations where more biases can be introduced is treating the symptoms not the cause. The goal should be being fair, not avoiding any situation where a bias could pop up.
Almost every study I read (and was told to read) showed that diversity is a beneficial element for companies. The research states that companies that have more ethnic, racial, and gender diversity perform better, are more productive, more innovative, and even more profitable.
Companies that have more homogenous teams feel more productive and innovative because it's easier for people to get along with people that are like them, but the numbers don't show that. Why? Well they say that:
- diverse teams focus more on facts and remain objective because there is less chance of being blinded by assumptions common to homogenous groups;
- diverse teams process facts more closely because they are more self-conscious about decisions around outsiders; and
- diverse teams are more innovative because of exposure to new ideas.
These points, however, assume true diversity. Differences in upbringing, culture, and ways of thinking. Which can be the case with ethnic, gender-based, and racial diversity, but is not necessarily the case. Dr Thomas Sowell makes an interesting point in an interview in 2008:
Places like Harvard and Stanford and Cornell, what you have is the black son of the black doctor, who lived in the same neighbourhood as the white son of the white doctor...the racial thing is being used as a proxy for something that it is not a proxy for because the vast majority of blacks that go to places like Harvard, and Cornell, and Stanford, are not blacks from the ghetto. Those are blacks...from Malibu, you know, they're from Pacific Palisades, they're from Winnetka and so forth, they're from the very same neighbourhoods that the whites are from, so now you call it diversity because you see something with the naked eye.
To avoid arguments against the example, let's focus on his point: ethnicity, gender, and race can be indicative of diverse thinking, insight, etc, but are not necessarily that. Diversity is more than the superficial indicators that are so often used.
Besides that, the above benefits only get realised if there is a consensus to work together. There are nuanced mandatory criteria that need to be in place for diversity to be beneficial, otherwise you can end up with a spiralling conflict.
Which brings me to culture fit and why it is important. The culture in 'culture fit' is not referencing the individual's culture or background, or even social culture at all. It is referencing the business's culture. That is, the business's value system and manner of working. It is a framework to achieve the goals of the business. Because, and my friends this is going to be controversial, the objective of a business is solving whatever problem it exists to solve for profit, not diversity.
Culture fit, then, is a common way of working that employees agree to in order to work well together. In fact, it is the necessary component to activate diversity in the first place. It is the common value system that people from diverse backgrounds can agree to in order to make use of their diverse experience and insight.
Examining it like this, we easily see that not only are culture fit and diversity not mutually exclusive, they are mutually inclusive.
Topics like diversity, culture fit, and biases are notoriously difficult to discuss because they are sensitive, subjective topics. They are also complex and nuanced, just like humans. There is no easy, straight forward answer. No blanket answer that fits all situations. No north start that will ensure everyone is happy and no one is offended. Which is why discussion is so important, and why avoiding them is so dangerous.
And it's why trying Twitter debates are unlikely to solve anything.