Paradoxes of Engagement: Fit versus Belonging

Better to make people feel they belong than excluding those you think don't.

Yet another incident at Facebook involving a candidate blocked by vague, nebulous ‘culture fit’ nonsense. In Facebook Pulls “Culture Fit” Card on Black Applicant With Ph.D., Sam Biddle reports on a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigation on the case of an unnamed Black woman, who was told 'You wouldn’t like this job'.

In the complaint, the applicant says she made it past the initial screening process and was granted further interviews, culminating in a round of in-person meetings with a group of all-white Facebook employees in San Francisco, during which she “sensed that the interviewers were not prioritizing her interviews because all of the interviews seemed rushed after making her wait for several hours.” The complaint notes that the applicant wasn’t interviewed by a single person of color and that the “only Black Facebook employee [she] encountered during the entire hiring process was a receptionist.”

She further alleges that during one of the in-person interviews in California, she was told, “There’s no doubt you can do the job, but we’re really looking for a culture fit.” The term “culture fit” is common in corporate tech culture, typically defined as the quality of hiring someone you’d want to hang out with socially or grab a beer with, but often criticized as little more than a euphemistic stand-in for racial or gender-based discrimination and a way for companies to deflect accusations of hiring bias. Given the overwhelming racial homogeneity of American tech companies and the pervasive belief that they require some sort of common vision of the future as much as any technical skill, determining what the “culture” in question even is or how one might “fit” into it can be impossible if an applicant doesn’t closely resemble a company’s founders or current staff.

Facebook has had a number of recent cases brought before the EEOC also alleging culture fit as a pretext:

The three other recent EEOC complaints about Facebook made similar allegations that Facebook relied on “culture fit” and evaluation by white and Asian employees to determine who made the cut.

This not new. Back in 2017, Facebook explicitly (supposedly) dropped ‘culture fit’ in screening applicants, as reported in The End of Culture Fit:

Structuring for success at Facebook

Like much of Silicon Valley, Facebook has been searching for ways to increase their diversity. To create a more inclusive hiring process, they prohibited the term “culture fit” when providing feedback on what interviewers liked or disliked about a candidate, requiring interviewers to provide specific feedback that supported their position. They reviewed their interview process to proactively identify unconscious bias and took steps to remove them from their process.

Facebook restructured their interviews to focus on alignment with their five core values and developed a “managing unconscious bias” training program, which they’ve since made available to the public. While this training is not mandatory, almost 100% of senior leadership and over 75% of non-leadership employees have voluntarily completed the courses.

“At Facebook, we’ve explicitly asked interviewers not to use the term ‘culture fit’ when giving feedback on a candidate because that phrase can easily allow bias to influence the outcome of an interview. As part of a larger effort to help people identify and correct for the biases that we all inherently have, interviewers at Facebook go through managing bias training and are encouraged to use the skills they’ve learned when interviewing candidates.”– Facebook Spokesperson


What about aspiring to a more open, expansive culture of an imagined company years in the future, one that would include people with more diverse perspectives and backgrounds, people who are different from those working at the company today?

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Facebook is not alone in its cliquish approach to hiring: it’s endemic in tech, and beyond. And it’s not just that interviewers want to hire people who seem fun to have a beer with. Sue Shellenbarger wrote about hiring biases in The Dangers of Hiring for Cultural Fit:

In a pattern researchers call looking-glass merit, hirers tend to look for traits in candidates that make them feel good about themselves. These may be more nuanced than race or gender. A manager who got bad grades as a college freshman is likely to warm to an applicant who also got off to a rough start, research shows. Or a hirer who attended a low-prestige school may favor applicants who did the same.

“What most interviewers are looking for and acting on is more of an intuitive sense of, ‘Would I get along with this person?’ and that often isn’t very reliable,” says Kirsta Anderson, global head of culture transformation in London for Korn Ferry.

On the other hand, it certainly makes sense to let candidates know what the company culture is, even if you sidestep the problems involved in hiring for fit. But you have to make it real, or suffer employee backlash. Shellenberger again:

Many employers post their cultural values on the wall but fail to make them explicit to job applicants, says S. Chris Edmonds, author of “The Culture Engine.” This can easily lead to misfires. Some 7% of workers ages 24 to 36 say they dislike their employer’s culture so much that they intend to quit their jobs in the next two years, according to a 2019 survey by Deloitte of 13,416 millennial employees.

Some of that heartburn is probably linked to actual toxic work culture, not just the skew with aspirational posters in the cafeteria.

I wonder if we’ll ever shake free of culture fit. Could Facebook simply act on the fact ‘There’s no doubt you can do the job’ and just drop the urge to assess the candidate for a fit with the company ‘culture’, which is probably just shorthand for the preferences and presumptions of those working here now?

What about aspiring to a more open, expansive culture of an imagined company years in the future, one that would include people with more diverse perspectives and backgrounds, people who are different from those working at the company today?

Pragya Agarwal takes what I think is the right path through the ‘culture fit’ maze, by offering ‘belonging’ in its place:

It is crucial to assert that when I talk about a sense of belonging, I am not talking about a culture of “best fit.” In fact, completely the opposite. Here, the intention is not to focus on trying to hire people who will fit into workplace culture, or support the employee in fitting into existing workplace culture at the cost of their own identity. This will have a completely opposite effect.

The idea is not to ignore differences but to normalize how we discuss and talk about them. The idea is that everyone is different, and they are equal. My research shows that people who feel they belong perform better, become more willing to challenge themselves, and are more resilient.

There is hard research to back up that idea. In The Value of Belonging at Work by Evan W. Carr, Andrew Reece, Gabriella Rosen Kellerman, and Alexi Robichaux lay out the groundwork for the deep benefits of building around belonging, and some hard numbers about how it matters based on research the authors conducted at BetterUp:

If workers feel like they belong, companies reap substantial bottom-line benefits. High belonging was linked to a whopping 56% increase in job performance, a 50% drop in turnover risk, and a 75% reduction in sick days. For a 10,000-person company, this would result in annual savings of more than $52M.

Employees with higher workplace belonging also showed a 167% increase in their employer promoter score (their willingness to recommend their company to others). They also received double the raises, and 18 times more promotions.

And, of course, we end at the center of the paradox: instead of hiring people that you think will fit the culture — a mindset of exclusion — create a culture based on making everyone feel they belong, in a culture based on inclusion.


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