Unconscious Bias and Implicit Culture Fit

May 10, 2016 | 6 Minute Read

Culture fit is a tricky beast. It’s frequently used when making hiring decisions, but it’s a very nebulous concept. What makes your company’s culture? How is it maintained? Who fits? Who doesn’t? Ideally, thinking about culture fit in the context of a potential new employee is a way to judge whether their work values mesh well with the company’s. In practice, however, culture fit tends to be incredibly difficult to define, which allows unconscious bias to creep into the decision-making process. Nothing about it is quantitative. There is no rubric for culture fit. “Culture fit” has become shorthand for “is this person like me?”

At my former company, I participated in a hiring discussion a few months after being hired myself. During that discussion, I learned that a standard part of the hiring process at the time was what a coworker called “the layover test”: would you want to spend a lengthy layover stuck in an airport with this potential coworker? This is essentially a question of culture fit, but the way it’s phrased also makes it a very personal question of “could you be friends with this person?” The problem with this is that basing a hiring decision on someone’s likeability is exactly what leads to a monoculture. The more similar someone is to yourself, the more probable it is you’ll like them. (If you haven’t seen Vi Hart and Nicky Case’s Parable of the Polygons, I highly recommend it. It does a great job of illustrating this point.)

In that same hiring conversation, one of my coworkers also voiced concern because the candidate had worn a suit to the interview. To this coworker, the candidate’s choice of a suit rather than something more informal suggested the candidate might be out of place at our company. This, too, is a kind of bias coded as concerns about culture fit. Is someone’s decision to wear a suit to an interview (or even to work every day), when they’re not required to, a good metric of whether they would be a good fit as an employee? Even worse, this specific example is a behavior that’s likely much more prevalent in people trying to join the tech industry who don’t yet know the unspoken rules, rather than interviewees who have previously worked in the tech industry. As a result, judging an interviewee for wearing a formal outfit can be an unconscious bias against people new to tech.

I believe part of this culture fit problem is that the concepts of culture and culture fit manifest differently in tech compared to other industries. Where other corporate jobs would require suits or business casual, tech companies allow a more relaxed dress code involving t-shirts and hoodies. Tech companies have also reacted against the corporate tradition of cubicles by creating open office plans instead. That there are differences between tech and regular corporate culture is neither good nor bad. Instead, the problem lies in the fact that tech tends to assume its way is more permissive, and therefore better. The reality is tech culture isn’t necessarily more permissive, it’s just permissive of different things. While wearing a t-shirt and hoodie is considered appropriate in tech workplaces, wearing a suit is not. Similarly, being uncomfortable with cubicles is a mainstream opinion, but being uncomfortable with open office plans is far less socially acceptable.

Unfortunately, open offices aren’t for everyone. While they may encourage more collaboration and conversation, the tradeoff is that they’re often noisier and more distracting as well. In addition, open offices may be more difficult for employees with disabilities. Here again, tech culture has not created a solution that’s better or more permissive than traditional cubicles. It’s just a different solution.

The prevalence of open offices creates a kind of implicit culture fit. Unlike the metric of culture fit used to make hiring decisions, implicit culture fit isn’t judged by employers. Companies don’t bother asking about employees’ comfort levels with open offices (or cubicles, as the case may be), they just assume. Instead, implicit culture fit is a more internal, self-selecting kind of culture fit. In order to succeed in most tech companies, employees need to be able to work in open offices. Employees who don’t work well in open offices may see their work quality suffer, or they may avoid tech companies with open office plans altogether. Either way, employees deal with their deviation from cultural norms on a more personal, private level.

Implicit culture fit is a byproduct of a company’s actual culture, not its idealized culture, or what it hires for. Since there is a standard type of tech culture, many tech companies have the same type of implicit culture fit as well. For example, many tech companies provide alcohol for their employees. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but it can often inadvertantly lead to the exclusion of employees who don’t drink, when drinking becomes the default social activity. (Side note: Kara Sowles wrote an excellent article for Model View Culture called “Alcohol and Inclusivity” that has a bunch of tips for making non-drinkers feel welcome at tech events.)

There are other types of implicit culture fit that exist within tech but are not specific to it. Activities that require money are one example. Not everyone, even in tech, can afford to participate in activities if there’s a fee. This is an especially difficult issue to diagnose because lack of money tends to make people ashamed. It can be difficult to figure out if this is the reason an employee is avoiding your company’s social functions. Another example of implicit culture fit is scheduling activities outside of work hours. This is often most difficult for employees with kids, but there are a variety of reasons someone might not want to or be able to socialize outside of work time.

Culture fit is a broad and poorly-defined umbrella for a variety of implicit rules and policies, many of which can negatively impact some portion of your employees. No one likes to feel left out or like they don’t belong, but it’s also difficult as an employee to bring up parts of implicit culture fit as an issue because it can feel like you’re the only one having problems. Unsurprisingly, this can feel isolating, which exacerbates the issue. Companies need to be cautious of how they use culture fit as a metric when hiring, but they also need to critically examine their culture as it already exists. Tech culture as a whole needs to become more accessible to a wider variety of people.