How to avoid bias in hiring: Is it a bad ‘culture fit’ or is it discrimination?
Hiring 4 minute read

How to avoid bias in hiring: Is it a bad ‘culture fit’ or is it discrimination?

Rise | November 23, 2021

Knowing how to avoid bias in hiring is essential for creating an inclusive work environment that’s free from discrimination. However, it might not be as simple to avoid as you think.

Forbes writes that remote work options are “not just good for employees” but “a major step toward creating more inclusive organizations”. Many employees have been able to continue to work at full capacity while also managing their family life, physical or mental disabilities, and limiting the pitfalls of commuting. 

Offering flexibility is a great step towards inclusivity in the workplace, but it isn’t the only contributor to diversity. From unfair hiring practices and obvious acts of discrimination to the more subtle idea of hiring for culture fit, many organizations may be guilty of not offering an inclusive hiring experience—and HR professionals might be overlooking key ways for how to avoid bias in hiring.

For example, research shows that even professionals who have been educated on how to avoid bias in hiring will still hire men over women, view men as more skilled, and be “willing to offer about $4000 more per year in salary” to a man. Additionally, in a study where identical resumes were submitted to various jobs but bearing different names, “applicants with the white-sounding names received an astounding 50% more job interview requests”. 

What’s so insidious about bias in hiring is that many people—while aware of it as a concept—don’t even know they’re doing it.

Many companies will use the guise of ‘culture fit’ to justify their discriminatory hiring practices, without even realizing that’s what they’re doing. Forbes writes that “hiring for culture fit simply means having the wisdom to find someone who fits into the company culture rather than exclusively looking for certain skills”. It sounds harmless, right? Maybe even smart?

But as Forbes also notes, as the concept became popular, culture fit became more of a buzzword than an actual specific set of values that align with the company’s. Instead, culture fit is used to justify hiring people that share similar traits, backgrounds, or life experiences. 

Instead of looking for what culture fit should mean—alignment to a company’s core values—hiring managers tend to consider whether they’d like to hang out with a candidate outside of work. The so-called ‘airport test’, for example, ranks prospective hires by how fun they’d be to kill time with while waiting for a flight.

This kind of personality-based discrimination doesn’t compare to the systematic oppression certain groups experience at work and have experienced for decades. But hiring for culture fit actually furthers those forms of employment discrimination, too.

In a study of 120 hiring managers’ culture fit criteria, participants noted that “bonding over rowing college crew, getting certified in scuba, sipping single-malt scotches in the Highlands, or dining at Michelin-starred restaurants was evidence of fit”. Significantly, “sharing a love of teamwork or a passion for pleasing clients was not”.

Culture fit should be about value alignment, and it is for most HR pros. But too often, hobbies—and expensive hobbies at that—become the criteria for hiring managers. This automatically privileges people from a higher socioeconomic class, ensuring that those who don’t participate in certain activities—either because they aren’t interested or they can’t afford to—are left out. 

Figure out what culture fit means to your organization and share that with everyone—especially anyone involved in the interview process. 

Culture fit isn’t about common hobbies or identical experiences. Having the same alma mater as the CEO or frequenting a popular local bar shouldn’t give one candidate an edge. 

Culture fit, at its heart, is about alignment to company values. Those are the things your people should have in common: a shared commitment and dedication to whatever tenets the company was built on. 

What’s the most rewarding part of your current role? What would you need from a supervisor to succeed? How do you define great collaboration? These are the types of questions that hiring managers should ask a candidate—not what their golf handicap is or favourite brand of whisky.

If someone wants to veto a candidate on the basis of culture fit, they should be prepared to solidly back up their opinion. How does this candidate fail to fit cultural requirements? The answer should reference company core values, and not an interviewer’s gut feeling.

The interview room isn’t the place to source a new squash partner or happy-hour buddy. It’s a manager’s opportunity to find talent that will drive the business to greater success. And people who add new, different perspectives to the team are the best way to do that.

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