Thoughts on Hiring for Culture

Each year there are topics that dominate the panels at SXSWi. In 2014 it seemed like everyone was talking about millennials or diversity (specifically gender diversity) in technology. While those are areas that still warrant conversation, this year’s panel discussions and presentations seemed to focus heavily on culture in the workplace.

I had the pleasure of attending a session called “Yes We Code: from the Hood to Silicon Valley”. Besides loving the well-crafted title, I was mostly excited that the panel was hosted by Maxine Williams, Facebook’s global director of diversity, and Van Jones, co-founder of Yes We Code. I was looking forward to hearing their thoughts and given the topic, I assumed the session would be filled with diverse groups of people hoping to hear more about how to make our little world more inclusive.

I couldn’t have been more wrong: “Yes We Code” had the lowest attendance of any session I went to during my five days at SXSWi.

While I felt embarrassed for all of those that elected to see Grumpy Cat instead of participating in a nuanced and highly relevant conversation, as an audience member it was a gift. Ms. Williams and Mr. Jones facilitated one of the most interesting, positive, and candid dialogues I’ve ever participated in. The audience was able to ask thoughtful questions and the panelists took every single one—including mine:

“How do we as an industry, reconcile the notion of ‘hiring for culture’ when it becomes a euphemism for hiring people who look and act ‘just like me’?” 

Mr. Jones (who is just as delightful as you would imagine) took a deep breath before replying, “when I hear the phrase ‘hiring for culture’, it’s like nails on a chalkboard.”

Jones added that “hiring for culture” has become one of those phrases that make it easy to overlook potential candidates because they “aren’t a good fit.” And being a “good fit” for a company these days seems to rely more heavily on whether or not you’d hang out with that person after hours than whether or not they are qualified for the job.

There are certainly situations where someone truly may not be a good fit: not everyone is a good fit for a fast-paced work environment of a startup or the quick turnaround times of digital media.

But unfortunately, what happens is saying someone isn’t a good fit becomes an easy out to not hire someone because they are different. This happens time and time again for women, racial and ethnic minorities, and those of lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

To be clear (and before anyone starts blowing up the comments section) I’m not suggesting that you hire people that are difficult to work with or unqualified to meet some sort of diversity quota. Rather, I’m suggesting to not make “hangoutability” a thing.

I’m consistently shocked by how many companies are building products to be used by women with not a single lady on their staff or board. Try listening to a company pitch about a product for pregnant women with a group of investors who are all men over the age of 45—speaking on behalf of women consumers—without rolling your eyes (I tried and failed at this a couple weeks ago). I’ve lost count of how many times people have sent me drafts of advertising material with not a single person of color to be found in any of the imagery involving people.

We need people who are different from us on our teams. We need people who challenge the daily status quo of even the most innovative startups. Hiring someone who is talented, experienced, and different from you is an asset and should be treated as such instead of a burden or trendy human resources initiative.

There are a number of startups across North Texas who are doing an amazing job of hiring for talent and merit—not just for culture. Furthermore, there are a vast number of organizations who are actively working to level the playing field for those from different socioeconomic backgrounds.

I challenge us all to learn from those paving the way. I challenge all of us to question our intentions behind “hiring for culture” and look at hiring for talent, experience, and skills and then building a strong company culture that values diverse experiences and opinions, and a team where all are valued and contribute to the overall success of the company.