Lauren Rivera, author of PEDIGREE, on the trouble with “cultural fit” in hiring

Rivera jacketLauren Rivera, associate professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and author of the new book Pedigree: How Elite Students get Elite Jobs, has an important op ed on class bias in the Sunday New York Times. In “Guess Who Doesn’t Fit in at Work” she argues that even in a hiring culture that emphasizes diversity, the idea of “cultural fit” has ‘gone rogue’, and interviewers at prestigious organizations practice a little-recognized form of discrimination in which they are “primarily interested in new hires whose hobbies, hometowns and biographies [match] their own.” From her piece:

ACROSS cultures and industries, managers strongly prize “cultural fit” — the idea that the best employees are like-minded. One recent survey found that more than 80 percent of employers worldwide named cultural fit as a top hiring priority.

When done carefully, selecting new workers this way can make organizations more productive and profitable. But cultural fit has morphed into a far more nebulous and potentially dangerous concept. It has shifted from systematic analysis of who will thrive in a given workplace to snap judgments by managers about who they’d rather hang out with. In the process, fit has become a catchall used to justify hiring people who are similar to decision makers and rejecting people who are not.

Rivera explains that “fit” can be used productively in the hiring process, but that it should emphasize behaviors associated with performance and not personal similarity. She outlines a better approach:

First, communicate a clear and consistent idea of what the organization’s culture is (and is not) to potential employees. Second, make sure the definition of cultural fit is closely aligned with business goals. Ideally, fit should be based on data-driven analysis of what types of values, traits and behaviors actually predict on-the-job success. Third, create formal procedures like checklists for measuring fit, so that assessment is not left up to the eyes (and extracurriculars) of the beholder.

Read the rest of her New York Times piece here, as well as her recent Q&A in Inside Higher Ed.

Chapter 1 is available here.