Where “cultural fit” goes wrong, and 6 keys to getting it right

cultural fit evangeline-shaw

(Image: Evangeline Shaw)

A recent Building Movement Project report, Race to Lead: Confronting the Nonprofit Racial Leadership Gap, reinforces an important fact about what’s driving the lack of diversity in nonprofits: implicit bias and systemic racism and discrimination, not to a lack of qualification or motivation (the assumption of which is, itself, a symptom of the real problem).

One thing perpetuating these problems is the idea of hiring for “cultural fit.” When used well, cultural fit can be a great thing, creating a working culture that bonds diverse people around shared values. When used poorly, it is basically another way to discriminate and perpetuate the status quo.

Unfortunately, it is often used poorly.

It’s no wonder that some business leaders are openly questioning the concept, while others, like Facebook, are banning its use entirely. Our sector, especially, needs to be thoughtful about this issue, as well as other issues stemming from implicit biases and systemic racism and sexism. We need to examine “cultural fit,” keep what’s good, and change for the better. Here are a few recommendations:

Define your values and give concrete examples. Never use the term “cultural fit” if you haven’t defined your values, including a list of concrete actions that demonstrate how each value is expressed. “Unwritten rules” are one of the best ways to perpetuate inequity, racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, etc. Here are my organization’s values and actions; it’s not a perfect list, but it serves us well.

Look hard at your team and see what’s missing. Diverse perspectives are a critical element for success and growth – the kind that challenge a team to think and act differently. If everyone on your team is in their 20s and 30s, for example, you might focus on recruiting people who have more experience. If your team is full of extroverts, maybe you need to balance them by recruiting introverts. If your team is all omnivores, maybe you need a few vegans. [Editor’s note: Author is vegan.] [Author’s note: Just sayin’.]

Balance present and future needs. Consistency of perspectives and leadership style may be great in the short run, helping everyone get along. As the world changes, however, consistency can lead to irrelevance. Figure out where your organization wants to be in the long run, and reflect on whether your culture will attract candidates needed for the future.

Remove inequitable hiring practices. I’ve written several posts on why we all need to post salary ranges, eliminate discriminatory requirements, understand time inequity, and think before disqualifying candidates who miss a typo or two, common practices that rule out many well-qualified candidates. If diverse candidates are stonewalled out of the gate, any discussion of cultural fit is meaningless.

Get your team trained on unconscious and implicit biases. We all have implicit biases, and they often have a greater effect on our thoughts and actions than we think. The only way to counter them is to be more aware: Get everyone trained, especially those in hiring and supervision. (Ready to start now? Try these Harvard-designed tests for examining your biases.)

Hold discussions on diversity, inclusion, and cultural fit. As we often mention in this sector, diversity and inclusion are not the same thing. Just because we have diverse team members, it does not mean we include them in strategy and decision-making. Talk with your team about the ways your organization ensures all team members are included; how feedback, disagreements, and new ideas are handled; and the mechanisms keeping your culture either static or adaptable.

Vu Le is a writer, speaker, and consultant, and the executive director of Seattle nonprofit Rainier Valley Corps. This post originally appeared in a slightly different form on his blog, Nonprofit AF.

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