Why Cultural Fit Could Destroy Your Diversity Efforts

December 1, 2016


Culture is important. In fact, it’s what sets one organization distinctly apart from another. Your organizational culture is one of the most critical elements for having well-harmonized teams for all members.

Cultural fit has its merits. Industry gatekeepers prize cultural fit as a hiring imperative. Organizations use cultural fit for competitive advantage by relying on the idea that the best employees are like-minded with matched personalities, skills and values. This supports the assessment that when people are different from the majority, and do not fit in a particular group, it becomes difficult to work with them and to integrate them into the team.

But there are serious limitations with the value of balancing fit with diversity and inclusion. We’ve been deliberate to communicate the importance of workplace diversity, yet we overlook the concrete problems that are likely to emerge if homogeneity takes priority over genuine inclusion. Cultural fit, when misused in hiring for personal comfort, likeness, preference or chemistry, becomes one of the biggest threats to diversity in the PR workforce.

When done carelessly, the concept of fit becomes a dangerous catchall used to justify hiring people who are similar to decision makers and rejecting people who are not. Hiring for fit can keep demographic and cultural diversity low, force people into a given prototype and reinforce the myth that skill and talent are exclusive to a dominant group. This creates situations in which our organizations look diverse in appearance but are deceivingly homogenous. Sameness in profile, even with different backgrounds, can breed a culture that leads to uniformity and irrelevancy in the workforce, uninformed or overconfidence in decisions, and exclusion of high-performing candidates.

When done thoughtfully, the concept of fit becomes a progressive attempt to highlight contribution. Hiring for contribution can make our organizations more productive and profitable by redefining cultural fit to be closely aligned with business goals. This creates organizations where people with different perspectives, attitudes and aspirations can work positively together. Achieving diversity through contribution is a sign of future innovation. It signals that organizations committed to evolving are ready to trust high-level contributors to take them there.

A focus on contribution

To use cultural fit more effectively, we must decide that contribution has more value. Focusing on contribution in hiring shifts an existing organizational culture by taking the energy up a notch and setting the stage for creativity to flourish.

Instead of looking for someone who fits neatly into your organization’s culture, seek to discover how he or she will introduce something new and unique. Instead of asking someone to match closely with your existing culture, seek to determine whether they are likely to energize your culture and nudge it in the right direction. As a result, your organization can become a home for big ideas and better growth.

Assess what your organization is doing well and what measurable goals you can crush. Figure out what is not going well and is a battle to achieve. Determine which aspects directly affect how you reach those goals. Ask what qualities and differences are likely to influence the existing culture in a meaningful way. In doing so, you reframe the concept by developing a cultural profile based on contribution.

While there’s nothing wrong with asking the question, “Is he a culture fit?,” it shouldn’t be completely synonymous with, “Do we like him?”

The beauty of diversity is having people come together to work on a common goal. We can’t lean on cultural fit to the degree that we become afraid of the perceived conflict in putting together different people, or begin to treat diversity efforts like a chore that needs to be managed.

The next time someone asks, “Are they a culture fit?,” carefully consider what the answer might be. This approach could destroy all that we have been striving for in championing diversity in our profession. When we rely on contribution, we create an opportunity to shift a culture with diversity and make inclusion a real concept.

Aerial Ellis

Aerial Ellis serves on PRSA’s national Diversity & Inclusion Committee and is director-at-large for PRSA’s Nashville Chapter. She is a consultant specializing in diversity and strategic planning, and is a faculty adviser for Lipscomb University’s PRSSA Chapter.


Rochelle Ford, Ph.D., APR says:

Great points. Can they get the job done and add a little different flavor to the mix in your organization?

Dec. 14, 2016

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