Hiring for "Fit" is Not Always the Smartest Strategy

You’ve probably heard the saying that “opposites attract.” Recent studies, however, have shown that we are drawn to people who look, act and think like we do, both for personal relationships and when it comes to choosing teammates and coworkers. What does this mean in the workplace? A lot. And some of it has legal implications.

We feel most comfortable around those who are like us. Why? They reinforce what we believe is good about ourselves, forming what can become a continuous (though not necessarily fact-based) positive feedback loop of acceptance. They don’t challenge us, compete with us, or fight us for attention. Sounds great, right? Not at all. Because hiring for “culture fit” can become a code that allows for discrimination.

The most successful workforces are those that embrace diversity of thought and experience. Companies need to be very careful in the hiring, promotion and attrition processes so that the very vague criterion of “fit” does not provide cover for what could be racial, gender or other discrimination.

In a recent study of top investment banks, management consultancies, and law firms, Professor Lauren Rivera of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management found that job offers were strongly influenced by interviewers’ perception of fit. They hired candidates, for example, that they’d most enjoy having a beer with or being stuck with in an airport. In reporting on the research, Fortune magazine found that by seeking “playmates” instead of co-workers who might add divergent thought to the mix, these companies and interviewers overlooked more skilled professionals with greater long-term potential at the company.

From what we know about implicit bias, “fit,” which is based on emotional rather than cognitive bases, can lead us to biased hiring decisions that may prove unfair. Not only does this diminish the potential “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts” alchemy that we hope for in a workforce, it is a potential hiring discrimination claim laying in wait.

The smartest path for employers (which also happens to be the safest) is to take steps to lessen the influence of personal fit—the similarities between an interviewer and the candidate—and to better articulate the company’s cultural values. Train hiring professionals and managers to hire for fit this way: “I know how I would solve this problem. I want to know how someone else would solve this problem.” That’s a much better fit for corporate health.