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When the push for ‘cultural fit’ creates a DEI blindspot

Is your culture a bland broth or a rich gumbo, where the distinct flavors still combine for a most satisfying meal?

When the push for ‘cultural fit’ creates a DEI blindspot
[Source image: JONGHO SHIN/Getty Images]

When you’re hiring new candidates, how much do you prioritize cultural fit? Your answer to this question may depend on whether you’d consider your company’s culture a broth or a gumbo.

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A broth has exactly one consistency and flavor, while a gumbo features distinct ingredients, each one retaining its unique flavor while contributing perfectly to the overall taste. 

In my years within the DEI space, I’ve observed quite a few companies adopt a “broth” recruiting approach, vetting candidates based on how seamlessly they believe they’ll fit into their existing corporate culture. Ideally, this practice should revolve around assessing how well candidates align with a company’s values and vision. In reality, it may mean something more arbitrary—using the same jargon and lingo, laughing at the same jokes, adopting the “right” business casual look, etc. Some diverse candidates do check these boxes but many others do not—and their strengths and potential contributions to the company are overlooked.

The result? Leaders complaining about a lack of “qualified” diverse candidates, oblivious to the fact that they might have let some great folks slip away.

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As you can imagine, that’s why I prefer the “gumbo” approach to hiring, where companies view candidates’ differences as strengths. My own background happens to be of the “gumbo” variety—my career journey has been an amalgam of disparate “ingredients” (juvenile counseling, call-center management and operations, training, leadership development and OD) that combine to create a satisfying “meal.” Both in work and in life, my goal is always to live without compartmentalization. That means each and every day I bring my multifaceted self to work—as a husband, father, mentor, and practical joker. Embracing the totality of who I am allows me to engage authentically with my clients and community, with positive results…and I know I’m not the only one. 

Recognizing the value of a person’s individuality—their unique background, life experience, and more—can benefit the company as a whole. Whereas when you over-emphasize cultural fit, you risk doing what I call “managing for sameness.”


Related: 5 ways to be more inclusive

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Instead, it’s important to strive to hire the candidates that would contribute most to your organization, regardless of how similar they are to your existing workforce. So how do you do that? Here are three tips:

Consider Unique Experiences

We each possess a lens through which we view and engage with the world around us. Being inclusive means understanding your worldview is not the only valid one, but is just one of many. Managers should keep this in mind when considering how the breadth of one’s life experience can impact their approach to work in positive and creative ways. A few years ago, researcher Dr. Arin N. Reeves conducted a study which revealed how being immersed in diverse populations and perspectives makes us smarter, because our brains are forced to fire off new synapses to comprehend new concepts.

Just imagine the transformative power this construct could have on your corporate culture as you hire candidates with different backgrounds, whether that’s unique professional experience or life experience. Such candidates might represent a marginalized group, but they might also possess other important differences, like distinctive political and culture values shaped by their upbringing, or particular viewpoints informed by their age (i.e. Gen Z, Millennial, Gen X, or Boomer). These influences can enrich your organization’s culture, bring much-needed fresh perspectives to the table, and help you meet both short- and long-term goals.

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Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover 

It’s human nature to make snap judgments based on what you see, ascribing myriad stereotypes to specific “looks.” Influenced by such factors as upbringing, social circles, and generation, we often bring preconceived notions of what type of image constitutes an appropriate “cultural fit” within the workplace. Some in the corporate world may be unaccustomed, for instance, to seeing certain hairstyles (braids, locs, afros), clothing (a hijab or dastar), or visible tattoos in the workplace. But that’s no excuse for eliminating qualified candidates from consideration. For hiring managers, such shortsightedness can prove costly when it comes to attracting and retaining gifted talent.

Create a Welcoming Culture

In the era of the Great Resignation, the balance of power has shifted in favor of the job seeker. Just as you’re interviewing them, job candidates are interviewing you…and considering whether your culture is right for them. If time after time, the answer is “no,” then you have some work to do. 

When creating team environments conducive and welcoming to diverse personalities, it’s sometimes the small things that matter most. Do you recognize holidays outside of those you personally celebrate? Do you elevate diverse voices in meetings, while being careful to avoid tokenism? Do you acknowledge issues important to your marginalized employees, as opposed to centering the dominant group in your organization? These tactics represent impactful ways of establishing a welcoming and respectful work ecosystem.

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When hiring with both cultural fit and DEI in mind, be honest and ask yourself this: Am I hiring for difference but managing for sameness? Am I being open to views or experiences that differ from my own? Rigidly sticking to arbitrary notions of what constitutes cultural fit can lead to an echo chamber of opinions and viewpoints, resulting in uninspired thinking. As corporate leaders, it’s imperative to venture beyond your comfort zone towards creating an authentically diverse organization. Without careful introspection, it’s easy to become mired in the broth instead of cooking up a delicious gumbo.  


Aaronde Seckou Creighton is the chief diversity officer for Leadership Circle, an organization that coaches top executives and business leaders. 


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