Sandy Manj Builds Bench Strength Hiring for Culture Adds vs. Fits

Jason McRobbie

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After decades of talk about workplace culture, more employers are discovering the failures of seeking to find the perfect fit—homogeneity, stagnation and turnover among them. We sit down with equity proponent and presenter Sandy Manj, DEI manager with Bench Accounting to dig deeper into the systemic roots of culture fit failure—and turn to the potential of building an enduring, organic culture grounded in adds versus fits.

Key Takeaways:

  1. While hiring for culture fit is focused on creating stable, cohesive workplaces, hiring for culture add focuses on increasing an organization’s competencies, diversity and resilience;
  2. Leaders need to do the legwork to assess their current culture to address systemic failures and goals before embarking on culture adds;
  3. Companies need to create job postings with DEI front of mind to reacher wider demographics of talent;
  4. Standardized questions are a great way of curtailing bias in the interview process, while evening the playing field for true culture adds.

While the hiring for culture fit has held buzzword cache for too long, Sandy Manj, DEI manager with Bench, explains why the practice is not only delimiting, but discriminatory—and just another example of the biases inherent in the processes of antiquated systems.

“What I am really passionate about is creating better systems with a focus on equity. My approach is heavily influenced by my work in human security, peace building and conflict resolution with an emphasis on system design, which goes beyond the traditional approach to DEI as solely as a HR function,” said Sandy. “So, it’s a different lens that I am bringing to it—a big, political, analysis into how we’re functioning and the psychology of working together as humans and getting things done without causing harm to each other.

Long guided by ethos with an eye on evolving new economies grounded in true equity, for Sandy, hiring for culture fit has always been fated to fail, rooted in antiquated thinking and historical entitlements.

“I think culture fit really focuses on finding folks who have similar backgrounds, attitudes and behaviours as the current employees at a company—and has the goal of maintaining that cohesive culture. That said, I think the major short term disadvantage of hiring for fit is limiting the diversity you are looking for in any organization,” said Sandy. “It also limits your adaptability. Also, it’s based and rooted in so much inherent bias because if you are only hiring for culture fit, you are going to gravitate towards people who are similar to you and will perpetuate that bias and further hinder the recruitment process.”

Further problematizing the matter of hiring for fit is that it shows a miscomprehension of the actual nature of culture.

“Culture is not static. Culture is always evolving. So how do you know and define our culture alone if it is an evolving thing involving everyone on your team?” asked Sandy. “I think a lot of times, companies are not clear what their culture is. Leaders can think, ‘Our culture is X,’ while the rest of the business thinks it’s Y. That’s because the leaders are together in a room talking to people who are too often exactly like them. They all agree and think, ‘Yes, this is our culture! This is amazing and everyone will adapt and think so too.’”

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As Sandy points out, this is not only false, but demoralizing internally and delimiting in recruitment potential.

“It rarely works this way. Why? Well, maybe because folks weren’t consulted when your entire mission, vision and values was rolled out by a small group of people,” said Sandy. “Without a sufficient amount of consultation with employees, there isn’t that initial, shared discovery phase to get real buy-in.”

In short, leaders need to be asking, ‘Before we try to define our culture, what is it organically?’ or risk falling into the culture fit trap.

Hiring for culture add on the other hand, Sandy points out requires a closer look and understanding of organizational culture, as well as the systems that support some, but most likely, not yet everyone within your business.

“Hiring for culture add is really about bringing in folks with diverse perspectives, experiences and skills that complement and enhance an existing culture. So when you’re looking at your hiring pipeline to see who you need in what positions—think, add,” said Sandy.

Moreover, think—and accept—a measure of discomfort at the start.

“I think there's a distinction to be made there. People want a strong culture, but they don’t want disruption to that culture.  It’s like placing peace and cohesiveness over the discomfort of being challenged,” said Sandy. “Folks SAY that they want to be challenged, but they really don’t necessarily, which is why culture ‘fit’ became popular. It can feel like a win—bring in people we like and we can work well together.  That might be true, but are you working well in terms of challenging each other, in terms of healthy conflict? Do you know how to push or listen to ideas that are not similar to what you would have considered?”

For those willing to make the push, Sandy explains why hiring for culture adds is not only smart DEI thinking, but competency-building and future-proofing for uncertain times. Having the systems in place to support that diversity of talent, however, is where many DEI efforts fall down.

“DEI is more complex through this societal, systemic view. It can really be an, ‘Oh my goodness’ moment when organizations realize that a lot of our policies—health, leave, accommodations—are actually quite exclusionary,” said Sandy with both a caveat and encouragement. “That said, if you put in that effort at the beginning, it might be a slow burn, but it is that consistency that is needed and will be rewarded. Most importantly, you are setting your company up to go really fast AND be sustainable because you did the heavy lifting upfront."

As noted, that add may take more time, but will inevitably yield a greater sum.

“When we’re hiring, we are looking for what competencies and skills a person can bring, not necessarily what degree they hold or how many years of experience they have. By doing this, we bring in a lot more diverse talent,” said Sandy. “At Bench, we always think, ‘how can we add value to our teams? When we're planning to add a new role or when a job becomes available, the recruitment team asks, ‘What is your team missing? Who’s on your team? They do a bit of an analysis on the team members; what are their strengths? Now, what is missing from that? Do we need someone who challenges us more?”

Sandy relates how Bench has reached ever more diverse pools of talent by not only answering those questions beforehand, but by keeping competencies and equity front of mind.

“When we are hiring for a position—say like an engineer—if we were only looking at their educational achievement, we understand that we are going up against decades of inequitable access to education. So right from the start we would be limiting our pool of candidates. Most people coming out of engineering schools, with decades of experience, are going to be middle-aged, white men. However, if we broaden the type of certification and skills we are looking for to include bootcamp certification, we broaden our reach,” said Sandy. “As a result, we’re opening the door to more women or those who may be changing careers. So we’re bringing a diverse amount of skills into the organization with people who are not trained the same way as someone with the traditional career path of an engineer.”

While just one example, it illustrates the key difference between culture fits and adds to Sandy.

“The added value of culture adds is the extended talent pool. It widens up the pool and your perspective. It’s not a matter of, “Oh, I can’t find the perfect candidate.’ It’s a matter of opening your lens to see that you have this whole new demographic to tap into,” said Sandy. “And then there are other day-to-day operational things that really benefit from those culture adds—like complex problem-solving, resilience, agility and enhanced organizational learning.”

Moreover, as she has long recognized, there is an economic logic backing up the greater ethos of recruiting for culture adds.

“As a business, it’s also just good business sense. If you’re customer-centric, you also want to attract talent the same way, from diverse backgrounds and places—and they will be attracted to you if they start to see your efforts,” said Sandy. “It becomes very obvious whether a team is homogenous or diverse in its thinking for customers and talent alike.

That authentic effort is integral to any and all recruitment efforts these days, Sandy points out.

“To attract people, talent or customers, people want to see themselves reflected and I think more and more people are not just demanding it, but have an expectation. The younger generation in particular are more focused on being values-aligned, so it's really important to authentically do that,” said Sandy. “It’s creating the systems, creating the workforce that is aligned to your values, so people can show up and do their best work.”

Key to the process of hiring for culture adds, however, is the work to be done ahead of time.

“There are some very tactical things that folks can do to think of DEI as more systemic and that’s key. It’s key to look at the big picture and THEN narrow the funnel to reach the bigger pool of talent,” said Sandy.

The first step is to look at and assess the existing culture. ’What is our culture currently? Where are the gaps in that culture? Where do we want our culture to be? What do we value? Have enough people been brought into the process in a diverse number of ways over an extended period of time?’

Make sure those values are lived through leadership. Leading through those cultural values in a behavioural sense for leaders is important. I think that’s what is often missing. It’s not just a story you tell to motivate people to become productive because that’s not going to work. Your actions need to back up your words and I think leaders can really step up and take that significant role in shaping and influencing culture.

Work with your recruitment teams to reach talent outside your normal demographics. Before any posting, you need to be working really closely with your recruitment teams, aligning their design to make sure they are aligned with DEI from the start..

Create  job descriptions that speak to an authentic, organizational commitment to DEI:

It doesn’t have to be exhaustive, just authentic and concise. Have a section addressing ‘Nice to Have’ and really lay out what the job entails. Postings with 50 bullet points of employer expectation are overwhelming and research has also shown that women won’t apply for jobs if they don’t have 90 per cent of the qualifications. You get a disparity and then your funnel is only going to bring in one demographic.

Definitely have disclaimers for the BIPOC and underrepresented communities to encourage them—‘Even if you don’t have every requirement, please apply. We want to hear from you.’

Make sure you are offering accommodations for folks who have apparent or non-apparent disabilities.  Add that sentence, ‘If you require accommodation for this interview, please reach out to us.’ That just signals to this deeper pool that you are taking inclusion seriously. It’s just being transparent about what is important to us.

Develop a set of standardized interview questions to get a better, unbiased assessment of the talent. The design of it is important. Everybody gets asked the same amount of questions—and then you are free to follow up on those—but it’s a set format. It helps the hiring manager to focus on how well someone is able to communicate their competencies, while discouraging them from looking for that simple culture fit.”

Sandy maintains that the standardized questions are not only crucial to allowing organizations to scorecard effectively and compare interviewee potential, but to help remove the biases —and potential discrimination—inherent in the hiring process.

As for those uncertain how those biases have permeated and imbalanced the workplace, Sandy recommends a quick read of a great article published, White Supremacy Culture, published in 1999 and recently updated to show how little has changed.

At its core, the author detailed 15 common behaviours still all to prevalent in today’s workplace and society in general—perfectionism, a sense of urgency, defensiveness and/or denial, quantity over quality, worship of the written word, the belief in one “right” way, paternalism, either/or binary thinking, power hoarding, fear of open conflict, individualism, progress defined as more, the right to profit, objectivity, and the right to comfort.”

If this sounds like your workplace today, think of tomorrow—because while the right to comfort and profit do indeed lie at the heart of any sustainable business success, as Sandy drives home, those rights and profits are for all.