Culture Fit or Implicit Bias: Here’s One Way to Know the Difference When Hiring

Racially Equitable Hiring and Retention Practices in the Nonprofit Sector: A 3-part blog series by Joanna Shoffner Scott

In my last post about hiring, I wrote about how nonprofits get stuck in a perpetuating cycle that sustains the whiteness of their organizations. I offered three steps nonprofits can take to do better in their hiring processes. Now, in this second post, I want to pick up where I left off — the interviewing process. I want to frame this post by posing a critical question — how do you know when a person is not a fit for the organization or if it’s implicit bias? Yes, I am tackling the oft used phase — culture fit.

Is this applicant a fit for our organization?

First, I offer guidance on interviewing. The culture fit question is major and deserves its own analysis in this post.

Design and document the interview process. As I suggested in my last post, if your organization is interviewing for an open position, then you need a written interview process. That written process should include:

  • The number of interviews the applicant should anticipate
  • The number of group interviews and one-on-one interviews
  • A clear outline of decision-making rules that shape the process
  • The timeline for making a final hiring decision

Also, last, and always treated as least: Decide in advance how to handle those applicants who don’t make it through the various stages of your process. Write rejections thoughtfully and in advance. Notify applicants and do so kindy. I would be willing to bet that applicants have invested a good bit of time to apply and interview for your open position.

Plan group interviews. Keep the number of staff at a reasonable amount. I like five people in a group interview. If you have a large team (of managers for example), then do two meetings. It can be intimidating (for anyone) to walk into a meeting with ten people — all peppering you with random, uncoordinated questions. Also, let the interviewee know how many people they will be interviewing –in advance. One of the best interview preps that I have ever received from a potential client included the number of people who would be a part of the group interview and their roles. It was incredibly helpful because it gave me a sense of who would be in the room. Structure group interviews in the following way:

  • Be intentional. Implicit bias and other biases will creep into the process unless intentionally disrupted.
  • Before the interviews start, ask each person to take the Implicit Association Test. Every person carries bias. It is essential to disrupt its impact on the process to create a more equitable interview space.
  • Ask each person who is going to participate to write a question in advance.
  • Put these questions into a grid, so that each candidate is asked the same set of questions. This specificity cuts down on selection bias. Of course, there’s a need for back and forth in real time, but creating a baseline of questions for each candidate establishes equity in the process.
  • Score the responses.
  • Meet to discuss. (Here decision-making rules factor in, significantly.)

Now, how do you know when the reason for not hiring someone is truly “not a culture fit” and when it is bias–If you can document it. When I have advised clients on interviewing and hear this reason for not hiring someone, I respond by saying, “Describe your organizational culture. Write it down and be specific”. The description of an organizational culture should be measurable, meaning someone can aspire to it. For example, Organization X is a fast-moving organization, and you will be asked to juggle several pieces of work at one time. Or, Organization Y is an organization of people who are unapologetically ourselves — we are outspoken, care about helping people, are loud and talented.

If you can’t articulate what the culture is and the rejection of a particulate candidate is hunches and feelings, then I would think hard about what organizational features you are attempting to maintain. (Whispers: sameness). Without a definition, “culture fit” is a hazy concept and is a definite hiding place for bias.

This post is Part 2 of a 3- part series on racially equitable hiring practices.
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Author: Joanna Shoffner Scott
Joanna Shoffner Scott is an experienced management consultant with deep expertise in racial equity. She is the founder and principal of Stamey Street Consulting Group, LLC, and is a Senior Consultant with the Race Matters Institute of JustPartners, Inc. Joanna has consulted with numerous organizations all over the country on unpacking race in their every day work.