Hiring for “Cultural Fit” is Kind of BS

An examination of “culture fit” for hiring…plus some videos from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice!

This post is inspired by a topic that was trending on LinkedIn. The post asked about the practice of hiring for “culture fit”. Unfortunately LinkedIn doesn’t allow for sharing articles outside of LinkedIn, so I took screenshots of their main points.

The post was inspired by articles published by the Wall Street Journal and the Harvard Business Review. (Probably paywalled.)

I have a lot of thoughts about the idea of “culture fit”, because rarely is culture so clearly defined in a company. I think most companies use it to discriminate and/or to try and get away with bad behavior.

 

Two Stories About “Cultural Fit”

There are 2 stories I think about when I hear about companies hiring for “culture fit”.

Story One: The Power of Diversity

A few years ago, I attended a one-day women-in-tech conference here in NYC. One of the speakers talked about her experience with diversity and joining a team with less than ideal experience.

I will never forget this talk because something she said was so relevant about why diversity is important. She said: if everyone is the same, it means they can all fail the same way.

As a new member of her company’s engineering team, she came in with a bit of a non-traditional background, which gave her a different perspective when approaching problem solving. In her example, she explained how she solved a critical error that all the other experienced team members failed to recognize because they all thought about the problem in the same way. Her value to the team was not her skill as a developer. Her value was her knowledge about their customers. It was that unique perspective that allowed her to view this critical problem differently and find a solution that everyone else missed.

Story Two: What is your culture?

The second story is my own experience from job hunting. A few years ago, I was on a call with a creative director and the CEO/President of a small e-commerce company selling men’s clothes. As I talked to them about the role and what they were looking for, they revealed that they’d spent a long time looking for the “right person” who could fit into their culture. When I asked them how long they’d been looking, they told me 8 months. (8 months!?)

When they told me that, I realized they didn’t know what they were looking for and all this time they’d come up with some type of excuse to eliminate candidates from their list. And I basically told them that it sounded like I was unlikely to get the job. I even asked them, what was special about their culture. They couldn’t articulate any details about their company culture that made them any more unique compared to any other company.

So what is culture anyway?

I love going to cultural events. It’s such a great way to learn about people and different parts of the world, without actually traveling and spending money on a trip. 🙂

Culture is the combination of art, language, food, dress, religion, music and social rules of a society. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say:

Culture is an umbrella term which encompasses the social behavior, and norms found in human societies, as well as the knowledge, beliefs, arts, laws, customs, capabilities and habits of the individuals in these groups.

Humans acquire culture through the learning processes of enculturation and socialization, which is shown by the diversity of cultures across societies.

A cultural norm codifies acceptable conduct in society; it serves as guideline for behavior, dress, language, and demeanor in a situation, which serves as a template for expectations in a social group. Accepting only a monoculture in a social group can bear risks, just as a single species can wither in the face of environmental change, for lack of functional responses to the change.

I think companies neglect the second paragraph: enculturation and socialization. Enculturation is the process by which people learn the dynamics of their surrounding culture. Socialization is the process of internalizing the norms and ideologies of society.

The first question to ask is whether a company is truly aware of their culture, and the second is if they have a plan to help new employees learn it. All companies have a culture, but do they recognize the elements of their culture enough to help new people learn them.

With so many companies cutting back on HR departments, I wonder how many of them have truly invested in the process of enculturation and socialization to help people learn and internalize the culture of their workplace. And have they considered how much time they’re willing to allow for assimilation to happen. My guess is too many employers are looking for exact matches, which makes no sense because the only way someone would have a company’s exact culture is if they already work there.

Is “cultural fit” just an excuse for bad behavior?

To be totally honest, when I hear people talk about “cultural fit”, what I think they really mean is:

  • Will this person complain or push back at working nights and weekends?
  • Is this person going to get offended at our sexist jokes?
  • Can we drink in the office or have bottles of liquor on the desk?
  • Can we swear like pirates at work?
  • Can we get away without a true HR department?

Maybe in some cases, it’s Will this person turn us in for doing something illegal?

But I think what they’re really asking is: Is this someone we can control? To some extent, that’s a fair question. On the other hand, is anybody asking, controlling for what?

Same Words, Two Deliveries

I sometimes think companies try to squeeze the individuality out of their employees, so that they can all become the same type of person over time. For that, let me share an example from Shakespeare (aka culture).

In this video, two well-known actors discuss and act out their different portrayals of Shylock, the main character from Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice. The actors are Patrick Stewart, of Star Trek fame, and David Suchet, of Poirot fame — and also one episode of Doctor Who!

The scene is from, ACT I, SCENE III. Venice. A public place. The character Antonio has just asked for 3,000 ducats and Shylock contemplates.

Patrick Stewart VS David Suchet – Shylock – Merchant of Venice

Patrick Stewart VS David Suchet. Two brilliant interpretations of 'Shylock' from the 'Merchant of Venice'. Their analysis, followed by their performances. Which do you prefer??(acting begins at 8:00)

Posted by In The Moment on Sunday, August 6, 2017

What I love about this is that despite the words being exactly the same, the director gave them the freedom to express their own versions of the character. The video is under 12 minutes, so it doesn’t take long to view.

This example is kind of the embodiment of what I wish companies would really get about “cultural fit” and diversity. I really don’t think the question to ask is ‘Do you fit in?’ To me, that list is pretty short:

  • be pleasant to be around
  • be safe
  • don’t do illegal stuff at work or on behalf of the company

You know, Girl Scout stuff.

What does this example show?

It shows a theater company that has hired two accomplished actors who can do the same role and speak the same exact words, yet their individual and diverse perspectives are what brings value to their performances. It also shows that the theater company, either at the same time or at different times, not only values the diversity of a heterogeneous theater troupe but they also recognize that their audience does too.

I hope that for-profit companies can also get to a place where they value that some of their employees will express the company culture differently than others, or express different aspects of the company culture at different times — and they’re OK with that. They’re still getting the job done, but the uniqueness each person brings to the job is still valued and ultimately will be a benefit to their company and their customers.


And just for fun, here’s Al Pacino doing the same scene:

Fire-Writing: Tolkien-Ready Fonts

A quick search for fonts that look similar to fire-writing, the handwritten font J. R. R. Tolkien invented in 1953.

I recently attended the Tolkien: Maker of Middle Earth exhibit at the Morgan Library, and I wondered if anyone had created a true Tolkin-esque font. I did a search for fonts that look similar to fire-writing, the handwritten font J.R.R Tolkien invented in 1953. You can see an example on the exhibition web page. My findings are below.

There are plenty of runic or “elvish” fonts, but I was only looking for Tolkien-esque fonts that resembled fire-writing.

dafont.com

Nancy Lorenz is clearly a fan of Tolkien and The Hobbit!

Google Fonts

Velvetine.fr

FIAF: Animation First, A weekend celebration of French animation

A few weeks ago, I attended a few screenings at FIAF, the French Institute-Alliance Francaise. I go to many of their events and I was really excited to attend this one because I love animation. I have been watching French films for years, and I find them refreshingly diverse and smart.

The weekend was a collection of film screenings, including feature-length animations and shorts, as well as talks, an AR gallery, a VR gallery, events for kids, and an opening night party. And the event planners at FIAF ended up adding additional screenings and events.

When I heard about the weekend event, I wrote down a whole list of films I wanted to see. Unfortunately, I only ended up going to a presentation of 3-D short films, followed by a short talk, a feature-length animation, another talk, and I viewed the AR gallery. I also got a free poster.

My initial list of films included: Miniscule, The Red Turtle plus a talk, a few 3-D short films, Last Man, Renaissance, Day of the Crows, more short films, and probably another talk. I ended up only seeing Day of the Crows, as well as the 3-D films I mentioned above.

It may be possible to see some of these films above, but Day of the Crows did not seem to be currently available in the US, which is why I wanted to see it. Here is a French trailer with German subtitles.


Short Films

I spent time looking for some of the names for short films, so I could try and watch them later. Here are some I found. I cannot remember which list they came from, so they might be a little disjointed.

René Laloux in 1987 | Comment Wang-Fo fut Sauve / How Wang-Fo was saved

René Laloux |Les Dents du Singe (The Teeth of the Monkey), 1960

Rene Laloux – Les Escargots | The Snails 1965

5 Meters, 80

Table Bob

Mr Hublot

Event: The Art of VR at Sotheby’s

On June 23rd, I attended The Art of VR event, held at Sotheby’s. It was billed as “A 2 day curated VR exhibition featuring: Studio premieres, theatrical & brand case studies, studio exhibitions, hands-on demonstrations.” I signed up through Eventbrite.

Virtual reality has certainly advanced from Second Life. Now there are headsets and immersive devices. The tickets were somewhat expensive but I went to the event, anyway, because I didn’t have that much experience with virtual reality; I thought it would be a good way to jump in. I spent time trying out VR at the different booths, then spent time listening to the talks, which were pretty good.

VR Booths and Hands-On Demonstrations

Many works were commercial, intended to demonstrate the graphics capabilities of a type of computer, to promote a film, or for some other commercial purpose. In my opinion, VR for entertainment purposes automatically comes across as a bit insincere, unless the provenance of the work — where it comes from, how it was produced, who produced it and why — is known because it can help the audience get over their skepticism.


Photos from the Galleries

There were also a number of artworks, and so far I think it works best for art experiences. The mechanics of the experience are incredibly intimate, yet it remains very public – which describes how art is experienced, as well. But, trying VR can be an intimidating activity. You have to get over feeling embarrassed for looking stupid with these giant geeky goggles on your face while other people are watching. And, as a panelist later mentioned, VR can be clunky and clumsy, even in an artistic setting.

Despite my initial embarrassment, I participated as much as I could. I enjoyed the experience and learning about VR.


Discussion Panels

I’ll admit that I initially wasn’t compelled to visit the floor where the discussion panels were being held. But once, I did I was very impressed. The president of the VR Society led at least 2 panels I listened to; he’s a very good moderator. The two discussions that impressed me most were a discussion on medical uses of VR and a discussion about a cinematic experience, called “Lincoln in the Bardo”.

Photos from the panel discussions

Discussion: Medical Uses of VR

On the far right (partially off-camera), is the surgeon moderating the discussion and presenting his use of VR in surgery. The man to the right of center is the psychiatrist.

One of the discussion panels was about medical uses of VR. Overall, this was the most impressive topic discussed or demonstrated for me.

  • Surgery: First, a neurosurgeon described how he used virtual reality to help him remove difficult tumors in the middle of a patient’s head. He showed how, due to the tumor’s location, historically the surgery left people disfigured and possibly blind or deaf. (The images were not attractive.) With VR, he showed, he’s able to more accurately and precisely navigate around major arteries and nerves, to minimize the intrusiveness of the surgery using orthoscopic surgical tools to minimize long-term damage and scarring.
  • Mental Health: Next, a psychiatrist described how he used VR to simulate settings for PTSD patients, to help them overcome their disorder in a controlled setting. For example, he can simulate Iraq for war veterans. He also showed how VR can be used to help patients manage pain, specifically burn patients. Pain, he explained, requires attention. If you can distract patients from their pain, they will experience pain relief. His example was showing a burn patient experiencing an ice world.
  • Medical Education: Finally, a medical artist showed how he used VR drawing tools to augment his work. I don’t entirely remember everything about his discussion, but his work sounded very interesting. And it seems like a type of art that is completely overlooked.

Anyway, the medical talk was very innovative and I’m glad to see this new technology being used in such important ways.


Discussion: Lincoln In the Bardo

“Lincoln in the Bardo”. The director is on the far left. The NYT VR director is 2nd from left. The VR Society president is on the far right.
Another impressive talk was a discussion about Lincoln in the Bardo, VR experience. This experience was a collaboration with the NY Times. It sounds like it was a pretty intensive project, so although I didn’t see it or write about it that much, don’t underestimate it, especially if you’re into cinematic VR experiences.
Lincoln in the Bardo

In this immersive narrative short, President Lincoln pays a nighttime visit to the haunted cemetery in which his beloved son has just been laid to rest. Based on “Lincoln in the Bardo,” the new novel by George Saunders.

You can possibly view it in 360-video on nytimes.com if your browser supports 360-video. I also found a link on YouTube if it doesn’t. It’s produced for a VR headset, so it won’t be the same if you don’t have a headset (I don’t).


Sotheby’s Art Gallery: BUNKER

Somewhat related to the VR event, Sotheby’s also had a pop-up gallery, called BUNKER, “which since 2014 has featured artists who collaborate with technology to create code-driven sculpture, augmented reality and virtual installation”. I took some time to check it out. There weren’t that many projects, but here are few projects I especially liked.

One that was really clever used the cassette frames and an audio output. Since it was using headphones, a video would have only caught half of it. So, I didn’t capture it at all.

The installation will be at Sotheby’s until July 20, 2017.

William Kentridge: South African Artist

In February, I watched a EuroNews report about a South African artist named William Kentridge, whose work is being shown in Copenhagen, Denmark. Here’s the article video.

Link to the article on EuroNews.com

I was very interested in learning more about the artist after seeing that he uses a combination of video installations, animation, and live action. As seen in clips in the article, he’s also not afraid to explore the difficult history of his country. As MoMA puts it, “Dealing with subjects as sobering as apartheid, colonialism, and totalitarianism, his work is often imbued with dreamy, lyrical undertones or comedic bits of self-deprecation that render his powerful messages both alluring and ambivalent.”

This can be seen in the following video, which is embedded in the text of the article. It’s like a New Orleans marching band, set in a lyrically dystopian world.

When I looked up more about the artist, I was surprised to find that he was not ethnically African, because as the video shows he is using black subjects in the artwork. In my experience, it’s not that common to find an artist using the experience of another ethnicity in their artwork, although it does occur in decorative arts, photography, and performing arts.

I suppose performing artists do this because music, dance, and theater are somewhat universally accessible for all people. Photography is a little different, in that the photographer has to take a documentarian or voyeuristic point of view, as opposed to being part of the art. Wikipedia explains that Kentridge is Jewish, with attorney parents that fought against apartheid. Perhaps he felt like both an outsider, voyeur-documentarian and part of the struggle in South Africa.

What I find revealing is how well Kentridge’s use of African subjects shows his strong empathy and understanding of apartheid and this difficult period of South African history. He says, in Pain & Suffering, shown on art:21, that artists use the pain and suffering of others for their work.

Animation Style

Wikipedia explains one of his animation methods:
“in all of his animated works do the concepts of time and change comprise a major theme. He conveys it through his erasure technique, which contrasts with conventional cel-shaded animation, whose seamlessness de-emphasizes the fact that it is actually a succession of hand-drawn images. This he implements by drawing a key frame, erasing certain areas of it, re-drawing them and thus creating the next frame. He is able in this way to create as many frames as he wants based on the original key frame simply by erasing small sections. Traces of what has been erased are still visible to the viewer; as the films unfold, a sense of fading memory or the passing of time and the traces it leaves behind are portrayed.”

The video above doesn’t show one of this animation style very well, but his style can be seen in other clips. He also uses stop-motion.

Other Work

Aside from animation, he uses live video and different masking and editing effects in his work. Here’s a video of him, from the Danish museum, the Louisiana, interviewing himself:

More Resources

I won’t be in Copenhagen anytime soon. But if you’re interested in learning more about William Kentridge, there are examples of his work online.

Louisiana Museum of Modern Art

Of course, there is the Louisiana Museum that is currently holding a William Kentridge exhibition. It looks like an interesting exhibit. The site is in Danish, but Google should be able to translate.

art:21

art:21 has the most examples of him working and explaining his process. There are several clips of some of his video/media pieces.

MoMA

MoMA has an archival page documenting his 2010 exhibition, Five Themes. Also still available is a flash-site that contains many examples of his work and his process.

Wikipedia

Wikipedia also has plenty of information about Kentridge, from his bio, to listing his films and many exhibitions around the world. There are also external links, if you’re interested even more information about this artist.


UPDATE: ARTSy.NET

In August 2017, Artsy.net reached out to me to inform me of their web page on William Kentridge.

Our William Kentridge page provides visitors with Kentridge‘s bio, over 350 of his works, exclusive articles, and up-to-date Kentridge exhibition listings. The page also includes related artists and categories, allowing viewers to discover art beyond our Kentridge page.

I took a look and it does have a lot of great information about this artist, including many images. So if you are looking for additional info, take a look!