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‘Culture fit’ (without clearly specifying what that means) is such an enormous backdoor for all manner of bias and personal prejudice I’m surprised the concept is even legal.

As usual, the root problem is that workplaces are made of humans. Yes, "culture fit" can absolutely be used to excuse nastiness. It is also a real thing that seriously matters, and ignoring interpersonal dynamics is a very quick way to kill a startup.

I'd just note that you can smuggle nasty behavior into any formal mechanism. Witness the legal system (which you'd engage here) - whining about bad-faith arguments in court is basically a national sport in the US, until the whiner is the plaintiff.

I've seen "culture fit" used in an attempt to reject female candidates because the interviewer didn't want to stop telling dick jokes around the office.

Fortunately, the management chain caught this and ... corrected the issue.

My wife had a great interview, everything was going well and they were showing her around the office. When she got to the team that was hiring, the hiring manager indicated that they like to shoot Nerf guns at each other, and they hope that is OK.

My wife showed a sign of mild disapproval, and that was it. She was rejected for "not a culture fit".

Turns out culture fit was the problem, just not for the candidates.

So if I make a startup, I should be forced to hire some brilliant programmer whose personality I clash with over over a slightly less brilliant programmer who I can tell will become a fast friend just because the former has demonstrated more technological prowess?

My opinion: there's not enough information to make a rational decision between the two.

Perhaps check references to determine if either candidate was able to work well in the type of environment you provide.

For example - the nice person may be lazy, or the abrasive person may productive and helpful.

It's been my experience that contacting the candidates references will flush that information out. Even in this age of litigation - I've always been able to get an answer to "Please rate on a scale of 1 to 10"

We've avoided some people that interviewed well and had great skills but were horrible human beings - and we've picked up some people that are hard workers that are willing to learn that didn't interview well.

Some programmers are real jerks who are always trying to prove how smart they are in competition with other people in the room, and because these are basically acting out on a neurosis if you have one of them yes an hour interview will probably at least establish some cause for concern.

If you want to play the hypothetical game: maybe you're the kind of person (most of us are!) who will never be fast friends with someone who's a woman. Or gay, or Muslim, or Mormon, or vegan, or deaf, or Republican.

If your hiring criteria excludes groups like that by a "fast friend" proxy test, then yeah, you should be taking the better programmer.

"Hard to work with" is a pretty big minus on somebody's skillset, you don't need to hide it under "culture fit".

Rejecting someone is really hard. Of course you want to give them actionable feedback, but at the same time you don't want to give them a bad feeling about you or your company. These two things are almost diametrically opposed to each other, because most people take feedback from strangers pretty badly.

Sure, it'll be more productive for everyone if I tell someone that we think they're just not smart enough to learn shit as fast as we need them to. But that hurts. So we say "You're great, but we're looking for someone with just a few more years of C++ experience". Similarly, when we think you've been acting like an arrogant dick, we say "lack of culture fit".

I once rejected someone whose English was so bad that I couldn't understand them on the phone. That's a hard thing to tell a foreigner who has the courage to call you up, by phone, in a language they probably know they're not great at, for an internship position! So I lied and I told them they had insufficient React experience. Am I proud of that? No. I'm still not sure what I should've done.

I see this trope a lot on HN that "lack of culture fit" means "wrong brand of sneakers" and it's usually nonsense. "No culture fit" means "there's something specific that we dislike about the way you behave or communicate but we don't want to hurt your feelings more than necessary".

Just say you’ve chosen not to move forward and decline feedback for legal reasons if pressed. That’s what everyone else seems to do. Better than lying.

I mean, it's just a hunch though. I've only spent an hour or two with the person, I don't know actually know if they would be hard to work with.

Candidate one gives off slightly anti-social vibes but is brilliant, candidate two jokes around with me during the interview and is smart as well, but less so than candidate one. Am I justified in going with candidate two on a hunch?

In your position, I’d take candidate 2. Displaying a reasonable level of competence and ability to work in a group is so much more crucial for a small company!

But now you did the mistake of assuming a lot of stuff, with very little data. Why can you say that person 2 is better at working in a group? Maybe person 1 was just very nervous, or is a type that takes a few days to warm up to new people. Maybe person 1 just crack jokes all day and is actually detrimental to the productivity. Impossible to tell from this one que alone.

You're always left with an imperfect amount of information after an interview. I don't think that means you should discount how well someone fits into a conversation given how important solid communication is.

Pretty much this. Yes, technical skill is important, but to some degree, the proficiency to do our jobs can mostly be taught given a proven background and some proven competency during the interview. Good communication skills? That's something taught over a lifetime.

And hence, some weight in the skills/judgement of the interviewer.

Which is also why there are usually multiple stages in an interview process, or at least, you pass a candidate to 3 or more team members to interview the candidate.

In my experience, it's hard to find good candidates, but not that hard to figure out which of the candidates will be a good fit, and a strong contributor, to a team. I've also hired mostly for team sizes of 10-20 developers, not 200.

what about the risk that candidate #2 has schmoozed their way up the ladder, and really isn't as smart as they seem?

Yes, as a manager you shouldn't become friends with your reports anyway. It happens but it always complicates things. If for no other reason then you have a perception issue with your other reports that you don't have a relationship with. Did your friend get a promotion because they're good or your friend? Did they not get the promotion because they're your friend and you're worried about optics?

This doesn't even touch even more difficult situations like when your friend messes up and needs to be dealt with in a professional but non-personal manner.

So yeah, hire the better coder.

If the reason you can't work with them/clash with them is based on their protected class status, the answer is yes, you are forced to hire them. So why not expand it a bit to protect groups that might not have quite the same level of legal protection?

tbh I don't see a huge issue with a small team of friends wanting to stay a small team of friends. imo, it starts to be problematic when a large (for some definition of "large") employer hires on the basis of culture fit.

Completely agree. I've been lucky to have been surrounded by pretty reasonable people in my 8-10 years in the startup world on the east coast but "culture fit" was one of the rare situations that I got in a really impassioned arguments with my superiors. It's code that allows you to avoid hiring a guy who wears Fubu or has a Kentucky drawl.

Let's try for a straightforward definition:

Culture is preference between two otherwise value-neutral positions.

For example: encouraging collaboration vs. encouraging independent work.

Or supporting self-organizing teams vs. all work having a WBS/charge code.

Culture is not choosing between being respectful and not; or choosing between being openminded and not; or choosing between being honest or not.

What’s wrong with evaluating whether you’d get along with someone as a coworker? In my experience, being friendly and getting along has aided cooperation far more than hiring the most qualified candidate at the detriment of group dynamic. Yes, there are potential biases, but at a smaller company I’d say that’s a huge factor.

I edited my top level comment for just this reason. Interpersonal communication skills are extremely important to evaluate for any position. But the person you're replying to is saying, correctly, that this isn't what people mean in practice when they bandy about the term "culture fit."

I see, yes, stereotyping based on some perceived “flaw” like accent is absolutely wrong and needs anti-bias training to remedy. It is tough though. I want people I interview for my company and team to get along with everyone, and trying to make that evaluation in a short amount of time can often result in immense bias. In the end, interviewing is fucking hard.

No question. Personally I think the first and most important step is getting everyone in our industry to admit that they have deeply internalized biases that they're not likely to be fully aware of and that they have a real effect on important decisions. Once you've acknowledged that you can start to check yourself.

Agreed, and it's up to the organization to remedy those biases with multiple rounds of interviews, and most importantly, making sure those multiple rounds consist of interviewers with different inherent biases and tendencies.

So? Bias isn't illegal unless your pattern of bias lines up with a protected class.

Ageism is illegal in US under Age Discrimination in Employment Act if that person is 40 or older.

Only if the ageism is on favor of the younger person. It is never illegal ageism to always hire the oldest candidate.

Every ageist situation that I have encountered thus far (am age 46) was "not a cultural fit."

I look younger than I am, but my patience for over-working too many hours is at an end. Years of stress have led to health issues that have to be managed.

But this all rolls into "not a cultural fit."

Yeah, and as a worker in his 20s who prioritizes work-life-balance, I wouldn't be a culture fit at those places either.

Bias was for protected classes was made illegal for a particular reason, which also applies to a less extent to the non-protected classes. To argue that bias is acceptable along as it isn't explicitly illegal is a stance that seems dangerous when applied to other areas of technology, and many past discussion within this community have shown that many members here are concerned with doing more than the bare legal minimum when it comes to ethical behavior.

So the law is wrong. This is the alignment problem, but for laws instead of AI. The law doesn’t perfectly match what society (to the extent that society is an entity with desires) actually wants.

Culture fit does make a lot of sense though. I interviewed at a company where everyone was a gamer. Would I have fit in? Probably not. Another company everyone looked about 25 or younger.

I don't blame them for not wanting to hire someone pushing 50. They just don't know if they're going to get the cool 50-year-old or the grumpy old troll who won't listen to anyone.

Of course they can never come out and say that for obvious reasons.

> Culture fit does make a lot of sense though. I interviewed at a company where everyone was a gamer. Would I have fit in? Probably not. Another company everyone looked about 25 or younger.

I play video games. I have all of the last two generations of consoles, a smattering of older consoles I've managed to hold onto over the years (lost most of them for one reason or another) and a half-decent gaming PC where I prefer to play games if possible. On top of that I've done game development on the side, and have run multiple gaming communities for approximately a decade now.

If I went to go interview with a company and they talked about how they were all "gamers", I'd be running for the hills.

You know what I want to do at work? Work.

You know what I want to talk about at work? Not video games.

You know what I want for non-monetary compensation? Not a weekly autochess tournament or PUBG squad night.

You know what kind of people I want to be surrounded with? Not a bunch of clones who all have the same beliefs and values and (lack of) experiences.

Right. So you would be weeded out by the culture fit, as I was. And in the long run I was glad for it. I think they made the right decision and I'm glad I didn't end up working for them. Even though it paid a little more and was half the commute of the job I did get.

Well that's exactly the point of the culture fit.

You should be a good fit for the company, and the company should be a good fit for you. It goes both ways.

Or it’s such a vague term that means something different to each team and might have significance depending upon what is valued?

Yes but my point is that in my 8+ years in the startup world it has a very specific connotation that is, as someone else said, a vehicle to legitimize really inappropriate biases into hiring.

"Poor communication skills" is another that seems to just mean "has an accent."

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