Culture Fit is a Lie

By Madi B.

Let’s start with a quick quiz, how many of you are willing to acknowledge the fact I’m Black? It’s okay, I know I’m black so it’s okay for you to know too. However- how many of you would tell me it was the reason you weren’t going to hire me? Probably no one, for two reasons.

1. Because I could sue you.

2. Because it wouldn’t look or feel good to say that and is overall bad for business.

However, we’ve learned a way to operationalize our ism’s legally. We’ve exchanged our biases for the word, “culture fit”. He wasn’t a culture fit, she wasn’t a culture fit. But at the heart of that phrase- what are we hiding?


We’re hiding our unconscious biases, and those of our hiring managers. So often we say “They’re not a culture fit” when what we really mean is “She is a woman,” “They’re too black, too old, too queer.” Culture Fit is a lie. We talk about culture fit when we don’t want to have hard conversations, when we don’t want to own our own biases. Asking for culture fit is asking for assimilation- which is ironic since we are trying to build diverse and inclusive workspaces. Isn’t that the new buzzword that we’re focused on these days?


Let’s start off with basic definitions, “What is culture?” According to Merriam-Webster, Culture is defined as “the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.” Culture is not meant to be assimilation, it is expression. We are all different, from different cultures and different backgrounds and when you bring people together, you cannot expect them to check their human jacket at the door and tetris themselves into the corporate mold.


We’re humans, we all feel, live and go through life differently. My favorite example is last year, I had a hiring manager tell me a woman who was a complete badass, was not a “culture fit” so they were going to pass. I know y’all don’t know me- but I’m persistent and kind of nosy so I kept asking what that meant, trying to peel back the layers of that onion. Eventually he said “ I just don’t think a woman in her mid forties is going to fit in on such a young team- she’ll hate it.” Whew, the shock on my face, but he kept going- “ Someone in their mid forties who is comfortable making 50k a year isn’t going to be a fit here.” By now, I’m sure the color has drained completely from my face. I’m internally coaching myself- this is a lot to unpack- do we unpack this suitcase or should we burn the whole thing instead? I’m dying to run out of the room like I’m on fire- but I don’t. I ask him why he felt those things, especially as a man very close to her age. After an in depth conversation around the importance of why we don’t get to decide what would make someone happy, and what the right amount of money is for an age group- we brought her back in for an interview.


The message here? Self awareness is a choice. In order to fight unconscious biases we have to be willing to look at them head on. We need to be able to call out the BS within ourselves and with our teams. We swear we want to build inclusive and diverse cultures, but are we really doing that if we want “a culture fit”- if everyone FITS then chances are they aren’t very different. Diversity does not fit a mold. We cannot always hire people we like, in fact- we shouldn’t. I shouldn’t want to grab a beer with everyone I hire. When I hire people, I’m not asking myself “Do I want to go catch a game with them?” I’m asking myself, how will they contribute to this team, are they a good person, how do they add value?


That’s the key- value add. We shouldn’t be looking for people to fit in, we should be looking for people to add value. As we build inclusive cultures, we should be allowing for people to take up space, not expecting them to fit into premed spaces. We’re not legos, or a game of tetras. We’re solving for the stress case, not the test case. If you solve for the most marginalized person you can think of, you’ve solved for all of us.


As a black woman I don’t want to be a culture fit, I want to be a culture add, a value add — I want to be valued for my lived experiences and the perspectives I have because of that

As Kanye West said, “If you knew better, you’d do better.” So I hope you choose to do better.

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