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Tech’s obsession with cultural fit feeds its diversity problem

January 25, 2018 By: Lekan Olawoye

Note: This piece was originally published in the Globe and Mail.

If you’re looking for a good tech job, it’s not enough to have a sparkling resume and top-drawer coding skills. You also have to come off as a fit for the team.

In the past decade, the idea of hiring for “cultural fit” – picking candidates who espouse the same values as your company – has spread throughout the economy. But it has particularly taken root in tech firms, which often focus obsessively on their office lifestyle.

When my colleagues and I conducted focus groups for a new report on the talent supply in the Toronto Region’s tech sector, almost every HR manager we interviewed put fit near the top of their list for assessing potential hires. At times, it beats out industry knowledge and even technical skills.

That’s a cause for concern. Canada’s tech companies, particularly our startups, are in a battle with deep-pocketed U.S. competitors for the most-skilled workers. Excluding talented people based on a nebulous concept such as “fit” exacerbates the problem and means they’re failing to properly tap Canada’s greatest natural asset: its diversity.

Hiring for compatibility is reasonable enough in theory – conventional wisdom is that happy workplaces are productive workplaces – but it falls apart when it collides with the reality of the way humans are wired.

Interviewers often take a mental shortcut and interpret personnel alignment to mean the candidate whom they relate to best. Some recruiters even employ the Beer Test – asking themselves if they’d like to go for drinks with an applicant. That opens the door to all sorts of unconscious biases that raise the bar for candidates from already underrepresented groups, such as visible minorities and women.

Tech companies urgently need to improve their staff makeup but some employers are worried that hiring employees from different cultures and nationalities could cause friction because they might not mesh in the office.

Managers who are willing to sacrifice diversity for the sake of harmony are making a bad business decision.

The evidence is piling up that diverse teams outperform homogenous ones. People from different ethnic backgrounds bring new ideas to the table that help companies spot and capitalize on opportunities in new markets – which is essential for Canada’s export-focused tech sector. Research also suggests diversity gives rise to creative friction that prevents teams from falling into groupthink and ultimately leads to smarter decision-making.

Equally important, diversity is akin to canaries in the coal mine: mixed teams can quickly flag when a company is culturally insensitive. It’s telling that soon after H&M’s monkey hoodie debacle, the Swedish retailer appointed a global diversity manager to drive inclusivity in its work force.

There are signs that some companies are recognizing the dangers of overemphasizing fit in hiring. Facebook, for instance, has banned managers from using “culture fit” as an interview criterion. Retail technology firms Shopify and Hubba are now trying to hire for cultural addition and are actively looking for people who can shape teams, not just employing like-minded individuals. And some technology companies, such as Plum and Knockri, are developing intelligent software to screen applicants objectively, potentially increasing the representation of visible-minority candidates on interview shortlists.

In our report, Talent Fuels Tech, we recommend companies start hiring candidates who demonstrate certain “mindsets for growth.” The attitudes we identify include agile thinking, a global outlook and the ability to work across different economic sectors, anticipating how needs will vary. Smart managers know to hire based on where they expect their companies to be in six months’ time, and workers with these approaches are able to adapt and develop as a company grows.

Our research found that tech workers from visible minorities were highly motivated job seekers. That’s a deep pool of talent that could drive company growth – if the recruitment playing field is levelled.

We are looking now at identifying the real-world attributes interviewers can look for to determine if a candidate has the right approach. In the meantime, HR teams at tech firms should begin challenging hiring managers any time they use cultural fit as a reason to reject a candidate from an underrepresented group.

After all, if you want standout talent, why look for people who are going to fit in?