The 1980s in the U.S. marked the rise of technology, the knowledge worker, and a trend linking culture and business following the publication of the 1982 New York Times bestselling book by Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr., In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies (Harper & Row). Considered a classic read for business leaders and managers, the book connected how companies could use vision, values, and behaviors—as well as prioritizing “soft” aspects of a company, like culture and people—to outperform their peers.

Shortly after, John P. Kotter, a leading expert on leadership and emeritus professor of leadership at Harvard Business School, began using data to draw greater connections between culture and business.

Businesses began to value employees as human beings and recognize that if people felt a sense of belonging, they stayed with a company longer and were more productive. Company leadership started to be more deliberate about hiring for a “culture fit,” ensuring that new hires would match the existing ethos of an organization.

The most diverse companies are now more likely than ever to outperform less diverse peers on profitability.

Now, companies are recruiting for a “culture add”—or hiring new employees who will complement the values of a company while also bringing new perspectives—and it’s not purely a difference in semantics. The contemporary view on the term culture fit has drawn criticism for perpetuating bias, especially as companies, and more importantly employees, are looking for organizations that are supportive of cultures that put equity, diversity, and inclusion at the center of their values.

The problem with culture fit is that it inadvertently creates a homogeneous workplace. Think about the questions you tend to ask yourself about new hires:

  • Does this candidate we’re interviewing have the same values as our company?
  • Are they going to work well here?
  • Is their work style compatible with everyone else?

After all, right now firms want individuals that will jell better, onboard faster, and seemingly have immediate value as a new employee. No one wants someone who is going to rock the boat, especially with all the work everyone has on the books. This approach potentially works well if you only need someone who is nothing more than a CAD monkey. However, hiring for culture fit also means that everyone on your team has the same blind spots. Inevitably it also breeds a culture of individuals who are hesitant to try new things and only focus on the things that everyone does well.

For a professional service industry that thrives on creativity and innovation, “culture fit” is potentially damaging, perpetuating biases in the hiring process that can stifle equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives that more firms have adopted recently. If the majority of people on staff think and act the same way, this environment can isolate those who think differently.

Hiring for diversity, after all, has been shown to be good for business. A 2015 McKinsey report on 366 public companies showed that those with greater ethnic and racial diversity is 35% more likely to have financial returns high than the industry mean. The follow-up reports, each with a broader data set in 2018 and 2020, continues to grow the case for benefits to business.

“The most diverse companies are now more likely than ever to outperform less diverse peers on profitability,” the McKinsey report states.

So how do you change the mindset of hiring for culture add rather than culture fit? Consider reframing the following when writing the job description and creating the interview process.

Culture Fit

Culture Add

How well does this individual fit in our culture?

What does this individual bring to our culture that is new and interesting?

What skills are needed in this position that is similar to others in the same position?

What skills are we currently missing from the team, that would be great to have?

How well does this individual check all the boxes when it comes to the software we use?

What is the individual’s capacity and ability to learn something new?

Remove silly, ambiguous questions that seem clever but really only help interviewers answer the question “is this someone who we would enjoy grabbing a drink with?" Instead, ask questions that help you understand how an individual may work through conflict and adversity, listen and learn from colleagues, or bring a new perspective to the firm:

  • How have past team members benefited from working with you specifically that sets you apart from your coworkers?
  • What is something that you’ve learned in the past year that really helped you develop professionally?
  • When faced with a conflict where either a coworker or client didn’t agree with you, how did you handle it?
  • How would you define your personal work style and how do you like to be managed?
  • What does your optimal work day look like?

Another helpful tip when interviewing to hire for culture add is to use a single set of questions associated with a scoring system. This helps remove potential bias and helps individuals identify exactly where a potential candidate may have fallen short.

Ultimately, when hiring for culture add, you want to look for individuals that share the same values of the company but can continue to help a firm evolve and move away from the sentimentality of doing things one way because “it’s the way we’ve always done things.” Introducing individuals who see things differently within the firm forces companies to continuously look where to improve operations, processes, and policies, providing new perspectives on how to approach a problem, and ultimately driving greater innovation through change.

The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.