Company Culture

The case for making the unexpected hire

Why hiring managers should expand their view of the "right fit."

Written by Technically Media CEO Chris Wink, Technical.ly’s Culture Builder newsletter features tips on growing powerful teams and dynamic workplaces. Below is the latest edition we published. Sign up to get the next one.


In 1859, John Stuart Mill snuck an enduring piece of recruiting advice in his influential essay “On Liberty.” He cautioned against declining individualism in Victorian England. As he wrote, that “so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of the time.”

It reminds me now of the caution made by diversity hiring consultant Alyssa Vásquez: “Don’t hire for culture ‘fit,” hire for culture ‘add,’” as she told attendees of a Technical.ly webinar this week. That distinction may seem small, but it’s anything but. Vásquez, who works via the Cultured Enuf consultancy, advised a simple team-building strategy: Pursue the perspectives and lived experiences that your organization doesn’t yet have.

This can be tricky, though. Pattern recognition is powerful enough a skill that it can trick any of us into following the wrong rules. When scanning resumes, it might seem natural to pursue some classic image of a high-performer — elite university and successive promotions at demanding companies, or some other familiar recipe for success in your industry. And no doubt you’d often be lucky to make just such a hire. But what do you lose with such a resolute recruiting strategy?

Well, sparks of innovation from new ideas, for one. More concretely still, even a good pattern copied enough times brings diminishing returns. Innovation comes at intersections. That case is defended most effectively right now through diversity of lived experience. The highest performing corporate teams have more gender and racial diversity, according to widely cited McKinsey research.

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To welcome genuine diversity of thought, though, organizations have to hire with a very different approach. Turns out to have a team with different lived experiences you have to hire people with different lived experiences. One big example of this is that lots of people don’t leap from one perfect work experience to the next before they deliver themselves to your hiring process. Why, then, do so many of us mask career breaks we’ve taken — to raise families, pursue passions or anything else?

That may be starting to change. A third of Americans who started a new job last year quit in the first 90 days, according to a report by Jobvite, and many weren’t leaving for an alternative — though that data is skewed by low-wage hospitality jobs. Even still, a pandemic-accelerated celebration of prioritizing mental health has reopened a conversation on what holes in a resume might mean. Last month, LinkedIn announced a new “career break” feature that treats resume gaps as the entirely normal experiences that they are.

According to their data, better than half of workers say they acquired new professional skills during a career break — including a majority of women. This is also quite good for the economy. Economists have a term called “contagious unemployment” that refers to the idea that a professional who takes any job they can to leave a bad work experience is more likely to become unemployed later — because they may take the wrong role. This creates a cycle bad both for the individual and the companies that spin resources finding the right fit.

Breaks let professionals wait for the right fit — though they require resources and privilege.

Those breaks can be for quite serious endeavors — a startup venture or caring for sick family members. But they also can be for important periods of self-discovery. A friend of mine who took a months-long cross-country road trip with her partner came back sharper than ever. She plays the ukulele, knits and has more tattoos than I can keep track of. Her journey is unlikely to fit perfectly to a company’s hiring pattern, but any company would be lucky to have her as a culture add.

Perhaps it’s fitting that one of the proudest bits of legacy for that old English political philosopher Mill is that he was an early feminist in misognistic Victorian England. Old ways were inefficient and wasteful. It reminds of an old favorite hiring rule of mine: Hire the weird ones, too.

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