How the Right Definition of “Culture Add” Reduces Bias in Hiring

In a 2019 FastCompany article, chief people officer and executive VP of Red Hat, DeLisa Alexander, hammered the final nail into the “culture fit versus culture add” coffin when she said: “Assessing for culture fit can unintentionally encourage managers to pick candidates that look like everyone else.” LaFawn Davis, VP of diversity, inclusion, and belonging at Indeed put a finer point on it, calling the culture fit approach “rife with bias.”

Hiring people who will add to your culture, however, makes “innovative organizations need to think less about who fits into the business they have today and more about who opens doors to the kind of business they can be tomorrow,” says Matt Bush, culture coaching lead at Great Place to Work.

But is changing the words we use enough to be more inclusive during hiring and afterward? We sat down with our own JD Conway, head of talent acquisition at BambooHR, to talk about:

The Root of the Problem Is in How We Define and Act on Culture

One effective definition of culture is the sum total of all the interactions in your organization; how everyone communicates, receives communication, and behaves. Hiring someone whose soft skills match your organization’s interaction style helps improve the fit; how satisfied the new employee is and how well they mesh with the current team has a significant impact on the team’s performance.

At its inception, the idea of hiring for culture fit signaled a positive shift from harder, business-first attitudes to a more person-first perspective in how organizations screened and selected candidates. But as JD explains, “most companies don’t take the time to define what either one of those is, culture or fit.”

Without a clearly defined, positive, inclusive culture to set the foundation, “culture fit” becomes a nebulous term—one that, at best, becomes an encouragement of homogeneity, but that at worst can excuse discriminatory screening decisions.

The scary thing is the very same thing can happen with the idea of “culture add.” Bias can creep into any hiring process where the right cultural foundation and hiring training isn’t in place. “The nomenclature does not matter if you don’t have a mooring or an anchoring,” JD stresses, emphasizing the importance of cultivating a culture that’s strong enough to hold everyone at the organization accountable.

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Practice What You Preach: How BambooHR Defines “Culture Add” and Reduces Bias in Hiring

Conduct a Thorough Hiring Manager Training

The work of reducing bias in hiring has to start before people set foot in the interview room. BambooHR puts what we preach into practice by requiring all hiring managers to participate in four sessions of hiring training over the course of two weeks before they begin evaluating candidates.

JD starts this training by foregrounding the foundational importance of our values, and at BambooHR, that’s what creates and guides the workplace culture—it’s how employees are expected to treat each other.

The training also digs in deep to discuss unconscious biases, anti-discrimination laws and regulation, how to interview candidates, and so on. “Rip and replace” is the name of the game—identifying bad habits and faulty ways of thinking, and replacing them with methods backed by science, so we can treat each candidate with respect and create lasting connections during the screening and hiring process.

As JD explains, “For the vast majority of candidates, the top reason why they choose one company over another is the relationships made in the hiring process and how they felt during the process. [As] humans, we’re all fallible. We just have to do the best we can to be trained, knowledgeable, and objective.”

Map Hiring Attributes to Your Values

During our hiring manager training, we take our values one step further and train hiring managers on specific attributes we think people need in order to do well at BambooHR and that will help the company grow in a positive way.

These attributes are a way to distill values and culture down to traits that are more tangible.

While we train new hires on our values as part of their onboarding, hiring managers need a much deeper, more detailed understanding of our values in order to have something more objective than gut instinct to rely on during interviews.

For J.D., any hint about a hiring decision based on “gut feeling” is a giant red flag. “[That’s] basically a swear word at BambooHR,” he says, “because it means you went on your instinct. You went on your bias. Where’s the data? How do you know that they have the skills, the attributes, and the acumen to be a good coworker and do the job well?”

Use Universal Attributes to Combat Bias and Find True Culture Adds

One important attribute BambooHR looks for in candidates is humility, which maps back to two of our core values:

“You need [to be humble] in order for you to have any hope of being open and assuming the best about other people,” says JD. For BambooHR, someone who is humble is someone who wants to learn, among other things, and that’s the definition that hiring managers take into the interview room. We don’t look for perfectly humble people, but this attribute helps us gauge if a candidate will buy into and act on our values.

In this example, looking for humility during hiring helps us “bring on people who will be open with their managers about what’s working and what’s not and who will also be open to feedback from co-workers and managers who care about their success,” JD explains. “They also need to be open with other co-workers to help them succeed—not because they want to look better in the eyes of management, but in a sincere effort to help their teammates and create a safe environment for others to grow and be their best.”

While we don’t want to list the rest of the attributes here (and risk creating a cheat sheet for candidates), the important takeaway is that these attributes we look for are universal traits, not based on personal likes or dislikes. “Anyone could build these” JD emphasizes, adding, “Anybody can become.” But identifying and rating these attributes during the evaluation process helps hiring managers answer whether or not a candidate will add to “what we’re trying to build and be together, and how we interact with each other.”

Overall, these attributes are our way of providing clear definitions for what we mean when we say “culture add.” We’ve defined the qualities we want our employees to have in order to scale the culture we’ve outlined for ourselves with our values. Everything always comes back to our values: “[These attributes] map to our values, which match the mission and vision, acting like this clear north star… Everyone knows what culture add means and what it doesn’t mean.”

Put Attributes on Interview Scorecards

But we don’t just talk about these attributes—again, abstract ideas won’t help hiring managers in the interview room. We also put these attributes on the candidate scorecard along with core job competencies. According to JD, this does two important things:

How can you build and maintain a strong company culture?

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What Can You Do to Reduce Bias and Be More Inclusive in Your Hiring Practices?

Every organization has its own values and culture, so your hiring process and the training you provide will be different from what we do at BambooHR. Here are some ways any organization can create more clarity and inclusion in their hiring process:

Trade In Superficial Labels for Real Inclusion

In what can sometimes be a hectic process, we have to remember the people going through the experience of applying, interviewing, and getting hired or rejected. “We have to try to do right by people,” JD stresses. Creating that anchor to your values and helping those involved in hiring be their better selves is a concrete way to improve how you treat people, provide a safe place for them to thrive, and open your doors to a wider diversity of talent.