Tech startups, like any other business sector, gravitate towards jargon that conveniently glosses over what they're really talking about. Wall Street has its collateralized debt obligations, Silicon Valley has growth hacking. And now, also, "culture fit."
The insidious term has wheedled its way into the startup lexicon as a way of dismissing a potential job candidate because he, or more often she, is "not a culture fit." It's part of the reason why companies are now choosing new hires the same way they would pick "romantic partners" or friends.
Taken at face value, "not a culture fit" sings: Nothing personal, you'd probably be happier somewhere else! But what prioritizing "fit" really allows a company to do is reject an applicant for not matching the pattern. For being an "other" in some way. For coming from a different background, looking different, acting different, having different interests, all of which could be considered an asset when a company is trying to target new markets or come up with ideas that solve more than the problem of "being twenty years old, with cash on hand."
Even Y Combinator's Paul Graham copped to that confirmation bias, telling the New York Times:
“I can be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg. There was a guy once who we funded who was terrible. I said: ‘How could he be bad? He looks like Zuckerberg!’ ”
This idea that someone is not a culture fit functions both during the hiring process and when people are already in the company. I know a number of women who have been turned down from jobs because they “weren't a culture fit.” I know a lot of people, not just women, but it seems that women are disproportionally affected. “Not a culture fit” is used as a reason to turn people down for a job. Once they are there, it's a way of kicking them out of the culture.
People will say “not a culture fit” without having to define what that means. It's almost this sacred space which lets them uncritically reject people from the company or from the team. On the surface level it tends to mean “We just don't like you. You're different from us. We don't want to figure out how to work with you.” “Not a culture fit” gives us a really easy way to disregard your experience and you as a person.
Next time someone wonders why they're surrounded by a "den of brogrammers," think about the selection bias that replaced the good ole boys club with a younger model.
h/t Mallory Ortberg
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[Image via Associated Press]