Is Culture a “bias” trap?

Can asking questions about someone’s “cultural fit” lead to discriminatory hiring?

I read an interesting post by attorney Daniel Schwartz of Shipman & Goodwin LLP. In his post Schwartz references a WSJ article called ‘Culture Fit’ May Be the Key to Your Next Job. The article, by Rachel Feintzeig, talks about the interviewing practices of companies as they try to find candidates with the right cultural fit.

The importance of fit

Many employers try to assess the cultural fit of candidates, especially when the candidates don’t have the request technical skills for the job, such as fresh graduates. As a result some companies use some quirkier methods than do some other companies, such as tour company G Adventures Inc., which interviews candidates while sitting in the plastic ball pit at the local Chuck E. Cheese restaurant. They then get asked to spin a needle to find out what question they need to answer, such as “What is your signature dance move and will you demonstrate it?” How you answer and what you do helps the recruiters decide if you fit in with the culture. The president of the firm says culture is a tribal thing for the company.

Quirky questions

G Adventures does not an exclusive on quirky questions. Glassdoor, Inc. has published a list of the Top 25 quirky questions. These include:

  • “If you were to get rid of one state in the US, which would it be and why?” (Can we include the District of Columbia?)
  • “How many cows are in Canada?” (You would think Google would have this data already.)
  • “How many quarters would you need to reach the height of the Empire State building?” (I didn’t realize it took quarters to ride the elevators in the Empire State building)

All joking aside there are many, many of these kinds of questions. What are people trying to accomplish with these questions?

Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures

The Uniform Guidelines, published in 1978, established that any test or assessment needs to be able to pass the standards of being both reliable and valid. Interviews, in this document, are considered tests and must meet these standards. Quirky interview questions, if repeated for every candidate, may meet the standard of being reliable (repeatable) but many of the may have a hard time meeting the standard of being a valid measure of work success. Thus you need to be careful of using these quirky questions as measures of “fit” when interviewing someone.

Culture Assessments

Lest you think I am against assessing cultural fit, I am not. I think someone fitting into the culture is an important component of their success. However, you have to be careful about how you define that culture. It is one thing to have your culture defined as one of hard work, attention to detail, and customer attention versus one of “being one of the guys” or locker room type of playfulness. The latter assessment would be discriminatory and obviously a misguided decision.
There are assessments that will help a company assess what the culture is and will help you determine how you can make the same determination on job candidates. These assessments have generally been evaluated and have had the statistical work done on them to make them both valid and reliable. You are much better off in using these assessments, as they are more defensible in your hiring process.

Never the only tool

You should however never rely on any one tool, even an interview, to make your hiring decision. Each single tool has its fallibilities, the power of the tools is in the contribution they make to the overall decision-making process. Using a combination of tests, interviews, assessments and background checks will make your hiring process stronger.
To answer the question in the title “Is culture a bias trap?” the answer is yes if culture is improperly defined and poorly assessed. So be careful!
By the way if you are in Hartford, Dan is holding a seminar on this topic today.

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