The Business Case for Rethinking Hiring for Fit

This business owner wonders if hiring fit—that is, seeing if someone fits in with your company's culture—is actually detrimental to a business's team diversity and potential growth.
Founder and Chairman, Palo Alto Software, Inc.
January 06, 2017

Is it time to rethink the way we use the concept of "hiring for fit"? Has an idea that once made perfect sense—a reference to shared values and work styles—become a code word for sameness and uniformity? Is hiring fit the opposite of diversity? 

Twenty-some years ago I used the concept of hiring for fit to build a team that grew my startup to a stable ongoing business. I hired people to fill gaps in the team and who also shared our values related to entrepreneurship, planning, collaboration and decision making. They had to be self-starters who would get things done without wanting or needing micromanagement.

Recently, however, I'm starting to wonder whether "fit" leads to uniformity and sameness, which can be seen as an enemy of diversity.

Does "Hiring for Fit" Have Undo Influence on Businesses?

Lauren Rivera, a professor at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Business, wrote about this issue in her 2015 book Pedigree.

"Whether they are hiring restaurant servers, fashion models or high-tech workers," she writes, "U.S. employers emphasize their personal feels of fit, chemistry and like-mindedness, often over applicants' prior work experience and job-specific skills."

Business owners may want to ask themselves whether hiring for fit has become code for sameness or worse.

In the book, she documents what she found from attending recruiting events, interviewing 120 hiring decision makers and observing almost every component of the hiring process as an HR staffer at a top firm. In a 2015 summary of her research published on Kellogg Insights from the Kellogg School of Management, her concepts of "looking glass merit" and "the airport test" were called out:

Interviewers champion candidates with whom they believe they would enjoy being stranded at an airport. Rivera suggests interviewers define merit intuitively in a way that validates their own traits and experience—extraverts seek extraverts, athletes favor other athletes and upper-class interviewers prefer candidates with similar pedigrees, whether they realize it or not. Rivera calls this concept "looking glass merit."

Business owners may want to ask themselves whether hiring for fit has become code for sameness or worse. Could it be a quiet contributor to inequality of opportunity for women and minorities?

Is There an Obvious Business Case for Diversity?

Does common sense indicate that groups of different types of people are more likely to come up with new ideas than groups of the same type? Or that groups that include people of diverse types and backgrounds are more likely and better able to relate to an increasingly diverse target market than groups of a single type of people?

Management consultants McKinsey & Company stick to the conclusions in their 2015 research summary titled Diversity Matters. Among its conclusions:

  • Gender diverse businesses are 15 percent "more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians."
  • Ethnically diverse businesses are 35 percent "more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians."

Look at How Hiring for Fit Fits in Your Business

Letting hiring for fit become a code for "same as always" or a rationalization for inequality may not make the most sense for your business given these insights.

Business owners may want to take a step back, and look at their team and their hiring process. Having a good collection of different kinds of people—whether that be defined by gender, ethnicity, age, religion or sexual identities—can have several business advantages. For example:

  • Business antennae looking at trends and future problems and opportunities. The more people in touch with different streams, opinions and communities, the more helpful it can be for your business. I think that new ideas are more likely to come from people outside the mainstream than inside it. Isn't that the core meaning of thinking "outside the box?"
  • Getting the best and the brightest. Look at the math of it: According to the World Bank, women are almost half of the world's population, and so-called racial minorities are projected to be in the majority in 2043, according to the most recent Census Bureau projections released in 2012.
  • Marketing and the product-market fit for new products. Labeling individuals is often insufficient, of course, because reality is so many points of view, so many communities, often overlapping and rarely monolithic. But isn't it also logical that a diverse team could be more likely to understand 2017 products and markets than a team that isn't as diverse?

Diversity can be good for business, which may cause you to rethink the importance of hiring for fit.

Read more articles on hiring & HR.

Photo: iStock
Founder and Chairman, Palo Alto Software, Inc.