‘Cultural Fit’ not ‘Unconscious Bias’

‘Cultural Fit’ not ‘Unconscious Bias’

Cultural Fit continues to consistently top the list of criteria both for organisations as they recruit or promote senior executives, and for individuals as they identify their next career move.

There are a raft of increasingly sophisticated tools and approaches to evaluate both ‘culture’ and ‘fit’ which have emerged ….. and with good reason. There is substantial evidence to support the premise that appointing leaders who fit culturally will lead to higher levels of performance, fulfilment, retention and commercial success.

While this is absolutely as it should be, there is growing concern that in seeking to identify ‘cultural fit’ we can fall into the trap of ‘unconscious bias’. That, in our attempt to identify individuals who will thrive in our environment, we can end up with a preference for individuals who are mirror images of people we already have in place – which can bring culture into conflict with diversity.

Lars Schmidt discusses in a recent Forbes Article the way Facebook are tackling this issue as they prioritise diversity and inclusiveness. Facebook have banned the term ‘culture fit’ as a reason to reject potential candidates, describing it as an excuse to reject candidates who don’t “think like us, work like us, live like us or look like us”, and have seen some positive changes as a result. While the association with cultural fit might be new, the idea of unconscious bias is not – in the 1980’s many orchestras across the US began using blind auditions in an attempt to eliminate unconscious gender bias, and saw female musician appointments increase from 5% to 25% within 20 years.

While there is certainly lots we can all learn from this experience in the business world, we need to make sure we don’t ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’, and I believe that the executive search industry has a key role to play in supporting and challenging our clients to balance these critical areas, to reduce unconscious bias while retaining a strong sense of culture.

Culture is often described as the glue which holds an organisation together, it’s DNA. Organisational values are a key part of this – but it is also tied into a broad range of often quite nuanced factors including: behaviours, environment, even language, as well as goals, vision, ambition and purpose.

When evaluating whether an individual is going to ‘fit’ this culture, we need to be clear that most forward-looking organisations are not looking to create a homogenous workforce – but to balance fit with progress. To appoint business leaders who share fundamental values and are sufficiently aligned with the organisational DNA to ‘fit’, but who will also bring fresh perspectives to challenge assumptions, stimulate creativity and push boundaries. While this can be a little uncomfortable, it is often an essential part of organisational growth, development and sustained commercial success.

As executive search Partners, our role is to support our clients, and the individuals they are considering, to get this balance right. To focus on ‘shared values’ rather than ‘sameness’, and to ensure that as we focus on identifying individuals who will thrive in a particular culture, we challenge ourselves and our clients to make sure ‘fit’ does not detract from diversity and inclusiveness.


Louise Gatenby