In my last column, I weighed up some of the pros and cons of working at a start-up. Something that came up a few times while I was researching that column was the concept of ‘culture fit’ and how that idea has become kind of a BFD at a lot of small companies. I didn’t really go in to it then as I felt like that particular chestnut deserved a column of its own. And here it is. The term gets thrown around a lot when you’re interviewing with smaller teams mostly because in a small workplace it’s harder to get away from a colleague you don’t get along with so the stakes are a bit higher. But here’s the rub: hiring at start-ups is already over dependant on unpaid internships and existing networks of family and friends. Mix that in with terms like ‘culture fit’ and everything can begin to twist and warp in to a white guy ‘nothing personal’ smoke and mirrors act.
It’s already well known that the culture at a start-up is decidedly more familiar than a traditional workplace. Meetings are held on bean bags, there’s an air hockey table, executives walk around barefoot. Posters on the wall urge you to DO WHAT YOU LOVE. I already went in to some of the potential issues with that in the last column, but what I didn’t mention was the ways in which those kinds of attitudes can affect the hiring process and, by extension, a company’s diversity. In an interview with Business Week, Northwestern professor Lauren Rivera describes how managers are making staffing decisions “in a manner more closely resembling the choice of friends or romantic partners.” This is a problem, she argues, because not only are companies possibly missing out on the most skilled candidates, but people do tend to date and socialise largely within their own ethnic groups. In the same article Eric Peterson, manager of diversity and inclusion at the Society for Human Resources and Management, points out, “A lot of times, cultural fit is used as an excuse [for feelings interviewers aren’t comfortable expressing]… Maybe a hiring manager can’t picture himself having a beer with someone who has an accent. Sometimes, diversity candidates are shown the door for no other reason than that they made the interviewer a little less at ease.”
A lot of people have contested that ‘culture fit’ is just the old boys club with a trendy modern twist, and I don’t disagree with them. Of course, people want to hire people that they will enjoy working with but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the global average for the largest companies in Silicon Valley – Google, Facebook and Apple (inspiration for many many start ups) – is a staff of 30% women and only 10% people of colour. The other point I would make is that most workplaces don’t take the time to formalise or document things like their office culture. And I think (just spitballing here) that’s because, like most things in the world, it’s a white male culture and that pretty much goes without saying. So whether it’s discrimination or ‘culture fit’, it plays out along similar lines: women and people of colour have entered a game where the odds have been stacked against them and nobody’s told them what the rules are. Sometimes it’s unclear you’re even playing a game until you realise you’ve lost.
Numerous studies have found that the more diverse a workplace is, the more likely it is to be successful. This is something which comes up a lot in the work I do with Women Who Code, and it’s something I believe needs to be pointed out again and again – nobody ever achieved great things by surrounding themselves with people exactly like themselves. There needs to be friction and disagreement and range of insights for an idea to be moved forward. Obviously we can all agree that we don’t want to work with arseholes. But there’s a big big difference between not giving someone a job because they come across as an arsehole and not giving them a job because you can’t picture yourself getting a beer after work with them.