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The problem with asking “Is this person the best ‘fit’ for the job?”

Workplace Culture, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

By Human Rights Services director Tanya (Toni) De Mello challenges the “fit" interview, asking what we privilege when we focus on “fit” over skills.

Tanya (Toni) De Mello

By: Tanya (Toni) De Mello, Director, Human Rights Services

Several years ago, I was on a team of recruiters for new hires from a pool of university graduates. We first interviewed the candidates using a list of questions to evaluate their skills and experience. We then had a series of informal events where we were asked to evaluate the “soft skills” of the candidates. We were told to engage in casual conversations to get to know the candidates better and to ask ourselves:

  • Would I want to work over a long weekend with this person?
  • Could I do a road trip with this person?
  • Is this person a good fit for our team?

As a result, the recruiters would ask questions aimed at “getting to know” the candidate:

  • What book did you read last?
  • What do you do for fun?
  • Who is your favourite hockey player?
  • What did you do last weekend?

This type of interviewing, aimed at getting to know the interpersonal skills of the candidate, has become known as the “fit” interview.

What is a “fit” interview?

When conducting interviews, we need to challenge our gut instinct of who we determine is best for a role and whether that’s based on their experience or their similarities to ourselves.

“Fit" interviews are broadly defined as the incorporation of hiring criteria that extends beyond the evaluation of skills. The goal is to determine whether the candidate’s “on-the-job” behaviour is consistent with the values and expectations of the organization (Bayt, 2015).

How important is “fit”?

What is even more interesting is that evidence shows that many organizations prioritize a candidate’s “fit” over their “hard skills” like the evaluation of their productivity, past experience and technical expertise. Many recruiters believe that evaluating these soft skills and values is more likely to ensure that a candidate is suited for the job (Rivera, 2012).

My experience conducting and participating in “fit” interviews

Having both conducted as well as participated in “fit" interviews, I have been struck by how arbitrary and subjective this process/technique is. Does it result in getting the “best” candidates for the job? I started to question the lack of focus on merit and began to ask what it meant to “fit” and/or to not “fit” in an organization?

While I can understand the allure of the practice, this type of conversation is geared less towards my ability to fulfill the job description and more towards asking whether or not I’m one of them — whether or not I belong.

Upon further reading, I learned that the “fit" interview may indeed have a negative impact on underrepresented communities in the labour force (e.g. women, racialized applicants, recent immigrants, etc). The interview tends to focus on interests, pastimes and popular culture references that arise in informal conversation. This may privilege certain groups who share interests with those who are in a position of power to hire over others who do not share those interests, ultimately creating invisible barriers.

How can we challenge the concept of “fit”

We need to be purposeful about the questions we ask ourselves and our candidates. In the planning phase of hiring, we need to review the interview styles and type of questions we use. When conducting interviews, this means challenging our gut instinct of who we determine is best for a role and whether that’s based on their experience or their similarities to ourselves. If we think fit is important, then why? Who fits and who does not?

Research has shown time and time again that diverse teams are more productive as well as much more creative in terms of problem-solving and revenue generation. Ask yourself what they might bring that is valuable specifically because they see the world differently. Then, when we hire someone who is different from us, how does the concept of fit impact our evaluation of their work and our effort to integrate them into our teams?

We know that having equitable and inclusive work environments does not happen without intentional effort. Yet, it would seem that these “fit” interviews are limiting diversity by encouraging us to privilege applicants based on their similarities to ourselves.

References

Bayt Website. 2015. “Interview Questions to Help Assess Cultural Fit”. Available at: http://www.bayt.com/en/employer-article-14942/

Rivera, Lauren. 2012. "Hiring as Cultural Matching: The Case of Elite Professional Service Firms", American Sociological Review. 77(6) 999–1022. Available at: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0003122412463213