Hire for Talent (and Tension), Not for ‘Fitting In’

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It’s tempting to hire people who look, act and think like us. After 30 years of success with Corporate Ink, Amy Bermar explains the error in that thinking.

The common wisdom is to “hire for cultural fit.” That’s also code for “let’s hire someone like us.” That’s wrong. Of course, it’s tempting; but it’s also quite likely bad for business.

I’ve been fired two times. The first time, I was 17. The other came about a decade into my first career, as a reporter. Both jobs fired me in large part because I was a woman, and secondarily, because I no longer fit in, or more likely, never did. And yes, both companies probably broke the law.

The first was McDonald’s, where I was a demographic outlier; I was heading to college. But I liked the job, the managers, and everyone I worked with, especially the young couple with a family. I worked hard, laughed and I didn’t even mind the food. (I’d been a vegetarian when I began working there, but soon started in on the fish fillets, and gradually migrated to the quarter-pounders, without regret.)

My “mistake” was speaking up. It was our first-and-only Sunday morning, all-hands meeting with senior management from the franchiser that was just making inroads into Manhattan. Someone asked for questions and comments, and, never shy, I raised my hand. I said I liked the job, but didn’t like how the managers touched us, referring to the female staff. The leadership seemed empathetic, but I was young. That week, I was relegated to the fry machine, mopping tables, and soon, not much else. My managers told me they felt betrayed. They also stopped speaking to me.

Technically, I didn’t get fired. The bosses simply stopped giving me hours, which, when you’re depending on a shift manager to shape your workweek, is pretty much the same thing.

The other job, at a large media company, was an out-and-out “you’re outta-here.” It took minutes. I was escorted to my desk for the perp walk out the door. At the time, I was the only woman in the newsroom with a child, the first person to negotiate maternity leave and the only newsroom staffer who had to keep daycare hours. I didn’t fit in well before, and even less so now. It probably wasn’t much of a cultural struggle to tell me to leave.

Technically, the managers justified their decision with a story. I was called into a meeting with my own editor and an HR representative, who informed me I’d insulted, and possibly threatened, a source. (That the source’s company was a multi-million-dollar advertiser wasn’t addressed.)

Absolutely, I can be direct and perhaps too willing to bend or break rules. But I was schooled very young, and very clearly, how to be a reporter, and there are many rules I cherish, several of them about freedom of speech, the practice of skilled journalism and what reporters need to do to make both work. Even today, I know in my bones that I never did what they’d said, but it didn’t matter. It was their word against mine, and there was no case, so I was out.

That was a Friday. I wasn’t quite sure what I would do, but I knew I needed to work. Next year will be the 30th year of the company I founded that Monday.

Every year, we hire people who look, and are, different, and who sometimes make life uncomfortable. We’ve hired people who we thought would be a perfect fit, and weren’t. We’ve fired people who looked and acted like us, and some who didn’t. We’ve lost people we wanted to keep, who looked and acted like us, and who didn’t.

Of course, a core commitment to certain values have to be held in common. Beyond that, though, what’s in it for us to hire outside our comfort zone?

  • Disagreement in meetings. It leads to better ideas.
  • Opinions that irritate us. They force us to think differently.
  • Unthought-of perspectives. At best, these give us empathy for others. And help us get better at reaching people in our clients’ markets, who, quite likely, aren’t just like us, either.

So we’re thinking about how to intentionally hire and keep people who don’t necessarily “fit in.” Yes, it makes for tension. That’s kind of the point.

Corporate Ink is always looking for talented candidates – check out our careers page to learn more.