Robin Cannon's Blog

The Dangers of 'Culture Fit'

February 23, 2019

I’ve been involved in a lot of hiring processes. As a prospective employee. As a team member helping evaluate a prospective employee. As the hiring manager deciding who to hire. It’s not easy. And, after skills evaluations and interviews, there’s always another question that comes up.

Are they a good culture fit?

This is a dangerous question. It’s a subjective measure. It needs to be thought about with great care. But it can often be as simplistic as “do I want to hang out with this person in and out of work?”

We choose people we want to hang out with based on shared interests and experiences. That can very easily mean “people like me”. That’s not a great measure when it comes to building a team to work together. It’s probably not even the greatest measure when it comes to deciding your group of friends.

If I only hired people like me then I’d have a bunch of white guys from middle-class backgrounds. And, hey, weird…that’s the demographic of a lot of tech companies’ staff. There’s no shortage of stories about the problems that those monocultures can cause.

Developing a positive team culture is important. But I don’t want to hire people to “fit in” with what’s already there. I want to hire people who will add to a rich team culture. People who’ll bring different backgrounds and experiences, and diverse viewpoints.

I try to use the following things to help me hire people who’ll contribute to a great team culture.

Define your values, and hire against them

I’m lucky. IBM’s values are well-defined and documented. This is a baseline that I can measure candidates against. Those values can manifest themselves in different ways. I talk about IBM’s values with prospective hires. I’m often surprised by their different thoughts on how they’d demonstrate those values. The values are shared, but we’re benefiting from diverse ways of showing them.

The Carbon Design System team also works to define some values and qualities that are particularly important to us. For example, my manager, Jeoff Wilks, identified “conscientiousness” as a central part of our culture. That’s something we can evaluate in the hiring process. But it’s a value that can manifest itself in different ways. A new hire can be demonstrate that value, without having to do things the same way as everyone else.

Not every company has values and culture as well-defined as IBM. But every team can define the values that are important to them.

Let a diverse group do interviews

This is easier if you already have a diverse team, of course. It can be a virtuous circle. I try to get all my team involved in the interview process. It’s not only managers and experienced developers. New hires will be working with everyone, so a diverse range of people should interview them.

I try and make sure that my newest hire always interviews the next prospective hire. And that we vary interviews between solo conversations and group chats. It helps the team be confident in their hire. It gives people valuable interviewing experience. And it also makes sure the candidate has a good sense of who we are as a group.

Actively seek different backgrounds and experiences

If everyone has the same background, thinks the same way, does the same thing, my team would stagnate. I want to promote creative tension, help people to question their assumptions, and learn new things.

I don’t want to hire people only to fit into an already existing culture. But I do know the kind of culture I want to keep building. I know the values that we strive to show. We can add those considerations to our hiring process, in a really positive way.

Of course, my teams are not perfect examples of diversity and cultural creativity. I don’t imagine such perfect examples exist in reality. But I do strive to build such teams, and I don’t want to be complacent. I try to create teams that are always working to change their culture for the better. And that’s very different from hiring people so they can “fit” with what already exists.


Robin Cannon

A Brit in Texas. I manage the dev team for IBM's Carbon Design System.
My blog for work, tech, and industry related musings. Thoughts my own.
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