Why achieving diversity in tech requires firing the industry’s ‘cultural fit’ mentality

If you have interviewed for a technology job, there’s a good chance the words “culture” and “fit” made an appearance during the phone-screen phase, or in early rounds of interviews. It is no longer enough for a candidate — especially early to mid-career — to arrive to job interviews with a stellar resume and relevant technical skills. They might also have to come with their best “I’m normal and will fit into the overall team culture of this company” outfit on.

Over the past decade, the idea of hiring for “cultural fit” has become as important as, and at times superseded, hiring to fit a job description across forward-looking industries, from tech to transportation. The nuance of this shift may be a cause for concern — especially for a global tech sector in search of a clear route to workforce diversity.

Many of today’s tech human resources teams are tasked with recruiting a diverse group of people and retaining star employees. However, they still tend to supplement those pursuits with cultivating a unified office culture. While the industry has largely moved on from using ping pong tables as a recruiting tool, hiring people who pass the Beer Test — an applicant that hiring managers could work with in the office and hang with at happy hour — remains commonplace.

Further, hiring based on a hiring manager’s own narrow set of requirements needed to fit their idea of a relatable person opens the door to all sorts of unconscious biases. Taking this recruiting shortcut also raises the bar for candidates from already under-represented groups, including minorities and women. The main casualties: the pursuit of diversity and business bottom lines.

Separation of work and play

It is true that research-backed conventional wisdom suggests happy workplaces are productive workplaces. What that line of thinking doesn’t account for is the fact that exclusively hiring talent for interpersonal compatibility can negatively impact the quality of work and focus of employees. In other words, employee camaraderie does not equal workplace compatibility. It definitely does not equal workforce diversity. And while a company may benefit from a general aspect of like-mindedness, there’s a great chance that the actual work is suffering due to the lack of diversity — both in people and ideas.

Here in Toronto, hiring managers still focus heavily on likeability, which at times can be seen as more important than technical skills. My team and I recently began to see to potential impacts of “cultural fit” as we started to dive into the findings of our new report on the state of talent in Toronto’s emerging tech sector.

So, how did we get here? While academic and real-world evidence is piling up supporting the claim that diverse teams outperform homogeneous ones, some hiring managers may be taking mental shortcuts when considering candidates for open posts. These interviewers are interpreting personnel alignment with the company’s needs to mean sharp alignment with their own personalities; and there are real opportunity costs to this assumption.

People from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds bring new ideas to the table. In the fast-paced world of tech, they can deliver fresh thinking that helps companies locate, prioritize and capitalize on new market opportunities. Hiring people from different backgrounds and disciplines to tackle startup and product scaling challenges also helps tech-focused ventures in export-focused countries like Canada stand out from competitors.

Moving away from one culture fits all mentality

Research conducted at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management suggests diversity boosts creative debate that prevents teams from falling into the groupthink trap and leads to more explored, informed decisions. Equally as important, a diverse workforce can quickly flag when a company does something culturally insensitive — and, honestly, prevent the company from nearing those situations entirely. Why do you think H&M appointed a global diversity manager to drive inclusivity in its workforce following its recent monkey-hoodie debacle? While some may see the move as too little and/or too late, hiring a diverse workforce can contribute significantly to a company’s growth and scale, maintaining a company’s social conscience and, more importantly, demanding accountability from the organization.

The pursuit of diversity in tech is not all doom and gloom. There are some technology companies beginning to emerge from the syndrome of overemphasizing cultural fit. Facebook has banned the term ”cultural fit” from the company’s interview process entirely. Shopify, a growing e-commerce company, openly talks about the company’s efforts to incorporate diversity into hiring practices and ongoing career development within the organization.

Here in Canada, artificial intelligence-oriented companies like Plum and Knockri develop talent recruitment products that screen job applicants objectively. These platforms are built without the often bias-heavy elements of gender, culture and ethnic background entering the picture until final stages of interviewing. Their ultimate goal: to boost representation of minorities, women and people from diverse backgrounds on interview shortlists for tech jobs and in workforces fueling the global economy.

After all, the best person for a tech job may be the candidate who stands the farthest out from a tech company’s crowd.