Culture Fit Interview Questions: Why They Harm Diversity and What to Use Instead

Published by:
Joe Caccavale
June 4, 2021
min read

Interview Question Playbook

What is culture fit?

Cultural fit is the idea that candidates should be assessed to determine how well they’d ‘fit in’ with an organizations’ culture.

The thinking behind culture fit is to find candidates who will work harmoniously with the existing team and uphold the existing culture.

Culture fit interview questions usually ask candidates about their personality and goals and often encompass generally chit-chat as well as ‘meet the team’ tests.

The problems with culture fit interview questions

How you define culture matters

Are you currently assessing candidates’ culture fit? 

If so, ask yourself this: what do you mean when you say ‘culture’?

If you see company culture as a set of values carved in stone to be adhered to and preserved, then this could be problematic.

Why? Because if your current team is fairly homogenous, then these values are likely to be reflective of the dominant demographic.

This means that candidates from minority backgrounds, not currently represented in your organization are likely to be penalized for not ‘fitting’ your culture.

Culture fit is then essentially a test of how like your team a candidate is - which only perpetuates any diversity gaps.

Culture fit is used as a smokescreen for bias

Having a ‘bad feeling’ about a candidate and chalking this up to a lack of culture fit doesn’t sound controversial…

But your gut feeling is often just unconscious bias

Albeit subconsciously, we make snap judgements and associations about others which affects our decision making.

This is true of all humans, no matter how pure our intentions may be.

Since culture fit interview questions generally take the form of a casual conversation, biases will naturally creep into the decision-making process as candidates reveal more about themselves.

This can be as much about unfairly favouring a candidate as it is overlooking another.

Meet the team tests and informal culture fit conversations can be boiled down to an assessment of how well we get on with a candidate.

How someone dresses, speaks, where they went to university or their favourite football team can all influence our perception of them.

“What most people mean by culture fit is hiring people they’d like to have a beer with.” - Patty McCord, Ex-Chief Talent Officer at Netflix.

Whilst being able to work with someone is a factor worth considering…

But people typically enjoy hanging out with people like themselves.

This is how diversity gets hampered.

This is how organizations end up being homogeneous.

Culture can’t be assessed objectively

The research is clear: hiring is most effective when anonymous, skill-based and structured.

Predictive validity of hiring methods study

Culture fit interview questions, on the other hand, deep-dive into candidates’ backgrounds, put personality over skills and are often completely free-flowing.

Whilst there are ways to data-proof this kind of assessment (which we’ll get to shortly), hirers often use culture fit as a shield to mask hiring decisions that may otherwise be seen as explicitly biased.

Waiting for a good candidate to ‘jump out’ at you, seeing if you ‘click’ or having a good ‘feeling’ about a candidate are all just another way of saying you’re being biased.

If we want to build diverse, high-performing organizations, we have to hire with science over gut… because more often than not, our guts are wrong.

The best talent doesn’t come always in the packaging you might be expecting it to.

What about ‘culture add’?

Instead of culture ‘fit’, some diversity-focused companies have made the switch to culture ‘add’.

Rather than looking at whether or not someone fits in with the company culture, this approach looks at what someone can add to it.

This is a healthier, more inclusive way of thinking about culture - as something to be built upon and evolved over time.

Culture add allows organizations to attract and hire a more diverse array of talent and values outsider thinking and new perspectives.

However, whilst culture add is certainly a more positive framing, it still lacks in any sort of objectivity.

Two candidates could potentially ‘add’ two very different perspectives, who’s to say which is the most valuable?

How to test ‘culture’ objectively

At Applied, we’ve ditched culture-based assessments altogether in favour of ‘mission and values alignment’.

Yes, there is value in testing candidates’ alignment with your organization but using the term ‘culture’ isn’t the fairest or most effective means of doing this.

All we want to know is: are candidates as passionate about our mission as we are and are they aligned with the core values we believe will get us there?

*Note: bias-free value alignment testing depends on how inclusive your values are. We tried to make our values as demographically neutral as possible, instead of focusing on the way in which we work.

Mission/values alignment questions should be weighted equally to any other interview question. 

Whilst many organizations have an entire assessment round dedicated to culture fit, we believe this is just one part of the equation and shouldn’t be valued over skills.

At Applied, we use structured interviews. This is where all candidates are asked the same pre-set questions in the same order.

The more uniform and skill-based your interviews are, the more predictive and fair they’ll be.

Every interview question also has a review guide - which allows interviewers to score each answer out of 5.

We have three interviewers score candidates (three is the magic number for mitigating bias) and these scores are averaged out to build a candidate leaderboard.

Interview scoring example

Using this process, you can test mission and values alignment just like you would any other skill.

These questions don’t need to dig deep into a candidates’ psyche, you can simply ask, Why are you applying for a job here (as opposed to anywhere else) and why now

As long as you’re clear about what you’re looking for, you’ll be able to objectively identify the candidates who are most passionate about what your organization is doing.

These candidates may not be your first choice of drinking buddies… but if they have the skills and the motivation, this shouldn’t matter.

Mission/ Values alignment

  • Passion for your company’s mission
  • A shared approach to working/collaborating

Culture fit

  • A shared educational, cultural or professional background
  • Similar demographic (age, social class etc)
  • Mutual hobbies/interests

Applied is the essential platform for debiased hiring. Purpose-built to make hiring empirical and ethical, our platform uses anonymised applications and skill-based assessments to identify talent that would otherwise have been overlooked.

Push back against conventional hiring wisdom with a smarter solution:
book in a demo or browse our ready-to-use interview questions and talent assessments.