This article was written by Filter Talent Solutions Partners Jennifer Hopper and Rain Blond.

As business leaders become ever more intentional about defining their companies’ values, diversity and inclusion are some of the biggest factors on their minds. In addition to their internal drive to do what’s right, they know that diversity is good for business, that it creates better products, and that it’s an important draw for the in-demand talent they want on their teams. 56% of companies say they “strongly believe” that diversity is directly linked to innovation, and throughout the industry we're seeing a push to leverage a wider range of ideas and perspectives.

However, a scan of the tech landscape reveals that this goal isn't yet a reality for most of today's businesses. A 2016 study, for example, reported that women make up at most 30% of leadership roles and 27% of technical roles at major tech companies. 43.2% of tech workers are between the ages of 22 and 33, and 69% are white. Some expressions of this lack of diversity are harder to measure, but it’s common to see workplaces with significant overlaps in employees' experiences, interests, views and even personal styles. This type of team makeup often ties to a clear, cohesive culture—but the vital exchange of ideas companies say they’re looking for? Not as likely.

Although our industry has made progress toward greater inclusion, change has been surprisingly slow. We continue to see a disconnect between companies' beliefs and their actual hiring processes, and it's clear that it's holding them back from achieving the meaningful diversity they want. To help our clients take on this problem, we've examined why this gap still exists, and what we can collectively do to close it.

When the “Perfect Fit” Becomes a Persona

Ironically, one of the main culprits arises from an overwhelmingly positive trend: “culture fit” has taken on a more central role in companies’ team-building strategies. Over the past 2 to 3 years we’ve seen a dramatic shift in how employers in the tech space look for talent—in a nutshell, they’ve gotten much choosier. Leading brands and startups alike are looking for the whole package: the perfect alchemy of technical skills, work experience and personal qualities they believe will complement their team and support their vision.

Overall, organizations’ growing emphasis on non-technical skills like emotional intelligence (“EQ”), communication style and personal aptitudes has been beneficial for everyone involved. But like any major industry shift, the era of the “perfect fit” has a problematic side. In their quest to match and reinforce their culture, even the most progressive companies can end up excluding a wide range of talent.

To be clear, it’s generally helpful for companies to think about the of types of qualities they'd like to find in a potential hire. But over time, and often unintentionally, this sketch can evolve into a detailed portrait. When hiring teams start to rely on an "employee persona" that mirrors the characteristics of the current team, a focus on “fit” can quickly go wrong.

It’s a frustrating cycle: as a company's brand and culture continue to solidify, and the more people are hired who fit the mold, the narrower the persona becomes. Before long, candidates are being measured against a static mental image of what the right match looks like… and thinks, and talks, and even dresses like. (Seriously, we've heard of employee personas as particular as “the guy in the skinny jeans who loves juicing.”) Hiring teams start to overlook anyone who doesn't jump out as instant, intuitive fit; so fixated on a checklist of the traits they want, they lose sight of what their teams, products and cultures actually need.


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What We Talk About When We Talk About Culture

Breaking this cycle starts with digging into how we approach the concept of culture fit, and the ways we might be applying it in exclusionary ways. Although human subjectivity has always been a challenging factor in the hiring process, over-relying on employee personas makes it even easier for unintentional biases to sneak in.

Between the lines, the language of "company culture" can carry assumptions that subtly discriminate against certain groups of people. For example, terms like “fresh-thinking” and “innovative" are too often associated with younger talent. Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, we still encounter the misconception that older, mid-career candidates are somehow less capable of contributing new ideas or adapting to change. As a result, many companies are missing out on the deep expertise and other benefits that come with having an age-diverse team. 

When rigid employee personas come into play, a company's approach to “EQ” can become problematic as well. We're seeing many hiring teams conflate “emotional intelligence” with overall personality—specifically, how outgoing a candidate is. There’s a trend toward associating collaboration with extroversion, while in reality emotional intelligence comes in many forms.

Not every member of a team needs to be a social butterfly or an expert presenter; more reserved individuals excel in many types of work, and can help balance out a more outgoing team. But when a company's definition of "good EQ" becomes too specific, the highly qualified candidate who didn't have the most fun or engaging presence in the interview is taken out of the running... when that very difference from the employee persona could make her the ideal addition to the team.

Match for the Role—and for the Future.

This deeply rooted problem doesn’t have a fast or easy solution, but there are steps we can start taking right away to better align our "culture fit" criteria with our values. The key takeaway isn’t that companies should lessen their focus on finding the ideal match; it’s that they need to approach this goal through a different lens.

Rather than basing your hiring strategy on an employee persona—no matter how successful your teams and culture have been in the past—hone in on the qualities that best align with the specific role and work at hand. And just as importantly, as you shape your leadership and hiring strategies, focus on building teams that fit into into your vision for the future... not just where you’ve been.

How is your organization working to solve the problem of diversity in tech? We’d love to hear about your ideas and experiences in the comments.