Is 'fit' the new bias?

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We go out of our way to recruit candidates who suit the particular culture of our workplace. But is this another form of discrimination, and could it be holding your company back?

You’ve probably heard these sorts of comments before: “They’re good, but I'm not sure they fit in with the team” or “They have the skills we need but are they our ‘type’? Will they ‘fit’ with the business?”

These common statements around cultural fit are opening the doors for bias and prejudice. Essentially, what is happening is that prospective employees are being assessed on subjective and inconsistent criteria that may not be related to the job description.

In this respect, looking for somebody who ‘fits in’ is similar to the bias many workplaces are seeking to stamp out – judging people on perceptions around social characteristics rather than their capabilities.

Creating a barrier to diverse talent

Even the idea that there is a certain ‘type’ of person who fits perfectly into a business or organisation is limiting and potentially exclusionary.

The person who ‘fits best’ may not be described explicitly along gender or race lines but there may be more subtle descriptors that are laced with gender and race judgements, or biases against or in favour of other groups or characteristics.

The imagery and language used in job advertisements are notable areas where companies may willingly or unwittingly appeal to or put off certain groups.

Bold and contentious headlines, or directive questions such as: ‘Got what it takes?’ serve to grab candidates’ attention, but may also repel many potential applicants who end up thinking “Well, I’m not who they’re looking for.”  

There’s a perpetuating idea that to be employable you need to look as good as your CV reads.

Corporate cultures are formed on certain core values, but where characteristics are confused for competencies we have an inclusion and talent problem.

If the organisation's ‘type’ is an Oxbridge-educated extrovert because “everyone here is smart and outgoing”, are introverts from other academic backgrounds being overlooked or – worse still – not even applying because the organisation is so set on what it takes to ‘fit in’?

The dangers of groupthink organisations

Any organisation that limits its people brand will struggle to recruit; candidates will deselect themselves if they feel they don’t fit the organisation’s narrow and unbending mould.

Staff retention will also take a hit as employees leave to join more diverse and attractive companies.

Even if the workforce is diverse in terms of race and gender, managers who recruit candidates according to how well they ‘fit in’ will limit the diversity of the team.

We know that diversity encourages creativity too, and that diverse teams outperform homogeneous ones. So believing that only one type fits will undermine creativity.

Even if the workforce is diverse in terms of characteristics such as race and gender, managers who recruit candidates according to how well they ‘fit in’ will limit the diversity of the team, resulting in more groupthink-prone companies.

This has an impact not just on productivity but on adaptability and resilience too, as the organisation will be less able to cope with change.

But let’s be even more literal: we know ‘attractiveness bias’ is endemic across society. ‘Fit’ people win, right?

This stereotype is perpetuated not just by the media but through corporate promotional materials that are rife with stock imagery of ‘attractive’, ‘presentable’ and predominantly young people to suggest a ‘good looking’ business is a successful investment.

The stock photos used by many organisations often have searchable descriptors such as ‘beautiful’ or ‘pretty’. This highlights the gendering issue that unfairly impacts women more so than men, perpetuating the idea that to be employable, you need to look as good as your CV reads.

Tackling the skills gap

Several industries are already facing a talent crisis, and a bias towards candidates who ‘fit in’ is making things worse.

Schools tell us that girls have been socialised to see science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects as more suited to boys. And research carried out by the Royal Academy of Engineering has shown that, black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) students do not see themselves reflected in senior and visible roles in the industry.

Clearly, broadening the idea of what it takes to ‘fit in’ in engineering will help the industry plug its growing skills gap.

Although there are clear challenges, there are several steps organisations can take to make things better:

  • Use ‘blind’ CV sifting and focus on strength-based assessments so recruiters look at potential and skills rather than making decisions based on name, geography, gender, age, or educational institutions’ biases.

  • Carry out equality impact assessments of desirable qualities and behaviours included in job descriptions and selection criteria to ensure there are no biases that exclude difference and diversity.

  • Provide senior managers and recruiters with unconscious bias training to help them identify and tackle their own bias blind spots. This is especially important for those who recruit or carry out staff reviews.

  • Ensure that the leadership team is reflecting on the company brand and reviewing its employee value proposition –  is the brand putting off prospective employees or even clients because only a certain type seems to fit in?

Recognising the subtle biases in the way we recruit and develop staff may be difficult, but by confronting them we can ensure our policies are fair and provide our organisations with greater access to more diverse talent pools that will ensure we are fit for the future.

Want to read more on unconscious bias?

Take a look at these related articles:

About Richard Chapman-Harris

Richard Chapman-Harris bio photo

Richard is the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Manager for global engineering consultancy Mott MacDonald which was named as the NCE100 Diversity Champion and won the Diversity award with Constructing Talent. He is a leading Diversity and Inclusion specialist and freelancer with a wealth of experiences across the public, private and charity sectors on local and global platforms. Shortlisted as Diversity Champion of the Year with the European Diversity Awards, Richard is included in the Economist’s Global list of Top 50 Diversity Professionals in Industry. Richard has been shortlisted as Diversity Champion with the British LGBT Awards and is recognised in the Telegraph’s Out at Work Top 50 LGBT Executives.

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01st Aug 2017 10:22

"Essentially, what is happening is that prospective employees are being assessed on subjective and inconsistent criteria that may not be related to the job description."

Almost as though they were being evaluated by humans with their own set of skills, opinions, likes and dislikes.

There seems to be an attitude that if J Random Person with Skillset X is introduced into a team which needs Skillset X, then that will be a success, because the fit of the skillset is the only important thing. The person is anonymous, faceless, like all the other employees. Just a resource control number.

"Hello Team Member 7439Q. I am New Hire 669X. My functions are listed on this document. Please provide appropriate tasks."

These are people who live and work together for hours. Yes, we expect people to be professional in the workplace, but we also expect them to be people. Friction appears in all sorts of unexpected places - who doesn't refill the coffeepot - who never takes late call - who won't shut up about the TV series they're watching or the sports team they're following.

Sometimes you can look at a person and know that although they might be very good at their job, they won't fit in with the people you already have, and the disruption to the current team spirit isn't worth any of the positives you might get from them.

That's not discrimination - that's knowing your people.

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09th Aug 2017 10:20

Thanks Mr_Lizard, an interesting point and important to not remove the human element to interactions I agree. Although I'd suggest that tackling our biases doesn't render us robots. Your point on knowing your people is also valid but how we know others can be skewed or framed based on our experiences or perhaps lack of them i.e. we may perceive we know someone but that is really more a reflection on us than them. Being specific, if I am an extrovert I may see someone else as introverted but that may not be how they see themselves (it becomes relative). If a team is homogenous, anything 'different' can be more easily 'othered' and this has impacts on diversity.

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