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:

Solving Design Problems like a Mathematician

While reading a forum discussion on FreeCodeCamp, I came across a reference to George Pólya’s book, “How to Solve a Problem”. In this post, I review Pólya’s problem solving strategy.

In a recent FreeCodeCamp forum, someone asked a question about journaling:

Hi coders,
While looking for the source for my project, I saw that some programmers or developers wrote a kind of diary to keep track of the code. I think it’s nice, but I was wondering exactly how you can structure a diary and if any of you use this to write code. Question here.

Good question. I’ve seen other people use diaries or online journals, or those things people use…writing logs or whatever. 🙂

Anyway, the only reply includes a link about using a “logbook”. On the link page, the author references George Pólya and his book How to Solve It. I had never heard of this person or his book, so I did a little research.

George Pólya, (1887 – 1985)

George Pólya was a Hungarian-born mathematician who was known for his mathematics work, as well as his work in heuristics. Heuristics is “any approach to problem solving or self-discovery that employs a practical method”.

“Examples that employ heuristics include using a rule of thumb, an educated guess, an intuitive judgment, a guesstimate, profiling, or common sense.”

He wrote a book about solving problems using common sense principles.

1st edition cover of “How to Solve It”, published in 1945, by George Pólya, a Hungarian mathematician.

The George Pólya Method of Solving Problems

The Wikipedia page shows that Pólya lays out some pretty good heuristics for solving problems. Although he intended for these strategies to be used for solving math problems, I think they could be used to provide a structured method for solving almost any difficult problem.

The Pólya problem solving method involves 4 principles:

  1. First, you have to understand the problem.
  2. After understanding, make a plan.
  3. Carry out the plan.
  4. Look back on your work. How could it be better?

So how does it work?

Principle 1: Understand the Problem

Pólya based the first principle, Understand the Problem, on the idea that math students struggled to solve problems due to a lack of understanding the problem in full or in part. His technique involved coaching teachers to prompt students with the following questions:

  • What are you asked to find or show?
  • Can you restate the problem in your own words?
  • Can you think of a picture or a diagram that might help you understand the problem?
  • Is there enough information to enable you to find a solution?
  • Do you understand all the words used in stating the problem?
  • Do you need to ask a question to get the answer?

Essentially one should not move past principle one until a constructive answer can be given. It’s not clear from the Wikipedia entry if a constructive answer is required for each question or the entire problem.

 Principle 2: Make a Plan

Basically he felt that a person gets better at selecting a good plan/strategy the more times they solve problems. Here’s a big list of strategies:

  • Guess and check
  • Make an orderly list
  • Eliminate possibilities
  • Use symmetry
  • Consider special cases
  • Use direct reasoning
  • Solve an equation
  • Look for a pattern
  • Draw a picture
  • Solve a simpler problem
  • Use a model
  • Work backward
  • Use a formula
  • Be creative – (“[Have] patience to wait until the bright idea appears”)
  • Applying these rules to devise a plan takes your own skill and judgement – (“Always use your own brain first”)

Principle 3: Carry out the plan

Simple enough, but the main problem people have with this step is giving up too soon. For that, the Wikipedia entry says:

“In general, all you need is care and patience, given that you have the necessary skills. Persist with the plan that you have chosen. If it continues not to work, discard it and choose another.”

Principle 4: Review, Reflect and Extrapolate

Take a look at what you’ve done, and evaluate how well it worked (or didn’t), and see how you can use what you’ve discovered for future problems.


Finding the book:

If you want to find this book, I recommend trying your library. I found it by searching for "how to solve it book pdf" (Google suggested the "pdf") and I found a copy.

Update:

An earlier version of this post included an account of how I applied Polya’s technique to my portfolio changes. A follow-up post will focus on that account.

Portfolio Resources

These are sites I’ve come across that may help someone building a portfolio. (Writing it also helps me remember!)

Yet another portfolio post!

Rather than go on about my own issues, I wanted to share a few resources. Before I begin, I’m going to make a little rant in case you’re feeling overwhelmed, like I am.

One of the sites emphasizes the importance the design a portfolio has on your job prospects. I feel this importance is overblown because the the design or tool seems to have such a big impact on how the portfolio is perceived. I can’t emphasize enough how many people use paid templates, plus the cost of a web domain. And I would be lying if I said it didn’t bother me that choosing the wrong CMS template is the difference between gainful employment vs not.

The fact that the portfolio makes a difference at all seems like the difference between showing up in a limo, BMW, Toyota, or SmartCar. I guess it really is like dating, which I admittedly know absolutely nothing about.

At the start of this review, my feeling is that people just want to be entertained. My thoughts changed somewhat, which you can read at the end.

/rant

 

Ok, now that I’m off my soapbox, here is my list. It’s organized like this:

  • Sites – Guides, essays, and portfolio collections
  • Tools – What people use to create their portfolio
  • People – A small handful of portfolios

1. Sites

A collection of essays, slides, and guides.

Article page: The Case Study FactoryThe Case Study Factory is about how similar so many UX portfolios seemingly look alike. The authors write:

“How the formulaic approach to UX case studies is numbing our critical thinking as designers, and how to bring a unique point of view to our work.”

Provides some pretty good tips at the end, however I recommend you read the whole article for context. Also because it’s a good article.

  1. Define your area of focus
  2. Align the story with the medium
  3. Set up the context of the project
  4. Focus on insights rather than process
  5. Design your case study reading experience
  6. Obsess over your case study visuals
  7. Make it personal

 

Article home page

Sometimes it’s just helpful to look at a big list. Here’s a list of 80 portfolios. I talked about 2 in the People section.

Guides and Slides
Article page, “Design a Winning Portfolio — Tips + Tricks from a Google Designer “

Design a Winning Portfolio — Tips + Tricks from a Google Designer  is a slide deck of tips and tricks. The slides are shared from Google slides (link).

This is a compilation of tips and tricks to improve a design portfolio. She states:

While each design discipline has slightly different project expectations (i.e. UX wants wireframes while Branding wants logo sketches), I’ve realized there is an overall universal set of tactics that, when applied, will automatically enhance and differentiate any design portfolio.

The Google slide deck is really big and there are videos, so keep that in mind. It loads a little slow.

 

nng.com’s recent article, “5 Steps to Creating a UX-Design Portfolio” is probably what kicked this whole thing off. Actually I talked about this in another post, so I won’t rehash. But I will point out that I’ve made a number of changes to my website and my portfolio at Cargo Collective, which at this moment is offline.

My Personal Bookmarks

I’ve had the following links bookmarked for a few years. These seem more geared to PDFs.

Portfolio Handbook [PDF] from the Class of 2012 Industrial Design, DAAP, University of Cincinnati.

This book was put together for the purpose of facilitating higher-quality portfolios. It will not cover project processes, but will act as a guide to documenting a project well for your portfolio. We hope the book will ease some of the anxiety around creating your first portfolio and then later exist as a helpful reference book to check a newer portfolio concept against

 

UX Portfolio Guidance, from Zebra People [PDF], London

We are fortunate enough to see some great portfolios, however there are still many UX practitioners who are selling themselves short. There are some absolutely brilliant and in-depth guides about UX portfolios out there. But our intention with this document is to provide a concise, visual hand book on what to include in your portfolio.

Your portfolio represents you. But you’re not always there to talk about your work. No one gets hired on their portfolio alone. The best outcome is a meeting. Tonight is about snap judgments.


2. Tools

What people use to create sites

From the list of 80 above, (plus a few others I found) I randomly clicked into about 3-4 portfolios per group and I took a look at the page source.

Many, many sites are built using Squarespace, WordPress, Wix, or some other type of CMS with either built-in or plugins for flashy animation, grids, and what-not.

Other sites were hand-coded, often with Bootstrap or Foundation. I took note of the many JavaScript libraries.

WordPress and Adobe Portfolio

Semplice home pageFor WordPress, I came across a template called Semplice. It is advertised as a WordPress template for designers. The latest version is Semplice4. Price is $100. I wouldn’t be surprised if many people have upgraded to the Studio version for $140. Semplice does not seem to have options for blogging; I didn’t see it.

 

Salient Live Demo

Another theme I came across is Salient, although the site I found it on had a “Under Construction” label. It’s $60 and available on ThemeForest. It has over 5,500 reviews, over 95,000 sales, and is currently rated as 5-star.

 

portfolio.adobe.com

If you use Behance, you may be interested in Adobe Portfolio. It’s $9.99/month, paid annually (about $120). You get access to Adobe Portfolio, Photoshop, and Lightroom, as well as access to Adobe Fonts. You can get a free trial, but you need to upgrade to connect a domain/subdomain.

Free DIY Options

Startbootstrap.com offers free Bootstrap templates, themes, and snippets that you can download and customize. Basically everything is free, with the obvious exceptions that you cannot use Startbootstrap templates to create a competitive website serving free Bootstrap templates.

I have used Startbootstrap multiple times and I find them pretty easy to use and combine. Some have CSS or JS animations built in; mostly CSS.

It does require solid HTML and CSS knowledge.

 

Github Pages uses your own github respository to host a website. It’s 100% free. However, it will say username.github.io/yourproject. And your code will be online for all to see. I’m also not sure if you can use Google Analytics.

Again, this is for people who have experience developing websites.

Obviously, having a free site generator is great. If you want to have your own domain, you can get a personal email address, like yourname@yourdomain.com. And you can connect it to github. But all that is well beyond the scope of this post.

 

BlankSlate by TidyThemes allows you to completely customize a WordPress installation, by providing a theme with absolutely zero styling. Sometimes you use a nice theme, but end up undoing stuff you don’t really like. Needless to say, this theme is for people with a good amount of experience. I say no more.

JavaScript Libraries

If you code your own site, these were some of the libraries and plug-ins some people used. I thought tilt.js was pretty cool.

There are so many JS libraries, this list will keep getting updated.

Lightboxes & Carousels

Instagram Embeds

  • lightwidget.com – Embeds Instagram photos into a webpage.
  • spectragram.js – http://spectragram.js.org/ – Instagram API plugin

CSS

Obviously Bootstrap, Foundation, grid/flex, and icon font libraries also showed up.

Jekyll/Jekyll Themes

  • poole – http://demo.getpoole.com/ – the Butler for Jekyll
  • hyde – http://hyde.getpoole.com/ –  a 2-column Jekyll theme

Layout

If you are a PDF portfolio person, you might be interested in using a grid.

The Grid System

Grid System

“The ultimate resource in grid systems.”

You can download InDesign templates, at 8.5 x 11 and 11 x 17. Good if you want to create a print portfolio, or if you want to redesign your resume.


3. People

A few portfolios in use

I randomly came across the following people, either in context of this post, or when reading an article, or serendipitously in some other way.

Caveat: In no way am I promoting any of the following people. I have never met them. I don’t know if they’re the kind of people who cut in line or litter. Maybe they don’t pick up after their dog….

The one thing that is true is that I took a look at their websites and I have an opinion. If you disagree, there’s a list of 80 portfolios above to check out.

Antonio Carusone, creator of Grid System. A very simple website. No images. He simply links to his other websites, most of them photography sites. The site is made with Cactus, which is another static-site generator not using Jekyll. (The last commit was 2 years ago, so it may not be maintained.)

I viewed a few other personal websites like this: simple, text-only, with no images. I think this is a good way to connect disparate interests. He seems to have a lot of experience, which is also good to know if you’re looking for ideas and you’re not early in your career.

 

Hiroaki Ito has this project on Behance. I’m including this person because I attended a virtual recruiter session with Google. The three recruiters reviewed two portfolios, and this project was one of them as an example from a visual designer. (The UX designer was Simon Pan, who uses WordPress. It appears to be his own theme although it could’ve started from BlankSlate.)

The project above is a combination of several very long images, stacked one on top of the other. This designer has a job at Google. He does not seem to have as much experience as the first guy.

 

Johna Paolino is someone I came across on Medium. She wrote an article on using CSS grid. Then I found her website, which is hosted on github. So that’s another – FREE – option. Looked like an interesting site and she seems to be employed at the NY Times.

That big font is BungeeShade.

 

Pendar Yousefi is the only person I came across in the list above that used Adobe Portfolio. It was pretty nice looking, so I’m including that here. He also appears to be employed at Google. He also seems to have many years of experience, which is another good data point.

To be clear, you cannot create an Adobe Portfolio account and link it to a personal domain without becoming paid subscriber. He does a good job of connecting his web properties. For him, he’s getting his money’s worth. But I just want to make sure it’s clear, according to the website, money appears to have been exchanged.

 

I came across Sharon Tsao‘s portfolio above, too. She does NOT appear to be employed. But I thought her simple site was an interesting example, and she seemed to explain her background particularly well.

She built this herself, or at least she did not use a template or CMS.


Foot imprints on sand near a beach
Photo by Matteo Kutufa on Unsplash

Thoughts & Reflections

I wrote this post over the course of 1-2 weeks. Right away, my initial thoughts for my own portfolio when the time of this post were to create a simple site that links out to other websites or to just expand my current WordPress installation (this blog). I also considered installing a separate WordPress instance altogether, which is still a strong possibility.

Yet after writing the majority of this post, I continued to investigate the list of 80 portfolios. I kept finding new CSS and JavaScript libraries. And, I wanted to dig a little deeper into some of these to find out more about how they were made and other details that the guides above don’t really get into.

Despite my rant at the top of this post, I have started to change my opinion a little on the importance of portfolios. I think there is something to be said for trying to display your work in as good a light as possible.

I’m still collecting more data about these 80 portfolios, so there will be another post. And I’ve found more items to add to the Tools section (Webflow, anyone?), so I’ll probably continue making updates to this post in addition to simply posting again.

[Featured image credit: Photo by Pierre Bamin on Unsplash]

Notes from “Career Management for Introverts”

I recently attended a 90-minute talk on career management for introverts, held at the Science, Business, and Industry Library in NYC. Here are my notes.

Overview

A review of the speaker and the talk

The speaker was Win Sheffield who is a career coach. He speaks at the NYPL on job hunting and career management. He’s giving an upcoming talk on networking in October.

For this talk, an overview on the NYPL website says:

Do you feel you shouldn’t have to sell yourself? Are you uncomfortable around people who are talking about their accomplishments? Do you find yourself looking for ways to get out of conversations rather than into them? Perhaps instead you find yourself coming up with the answer while the person you are listening to goes on and on or maybe you like to take time to consider your answers. If you have had any of these experiences, you may be interested in this talk.

This talk is part of the NYPL Career Services series. You can read about the talk online: https://www.nypl.org/events/programs/2019/09/11/career-management-introverts.

I also included a link to the Facebook Live video at the end. But, if you don’t want to watch a 90 minute video, you can read my notes below.


My Notes

Ok, let’s get into my notes.

First we discussed the difference between introversion and extroversion.

  • Remember that introverts are hired for skills related to being an introvert — such as reading, working independently, and deep thinking.
  • The US is NOT an introverted country, but the UK and Japan are.

Phone Conversations

Turns out, no one likes talking on the phone.

We discussed why phone calls are annoying:
  1. The expressions and body language of the person on the other line are hidden.
  2. It requires an immediate response; you cannot mull over your answer.
Some tips to help make phone calls easier:
  • Put up a mirror by the phone, to help you remember to smile.
  • Stand up while on the phone, to project more energy.

Small Talk

Despite the stigma, small talk is good for introverts.

Although we kind of hate it, small talk is a good way to make connections.

It can help if you think of ideas in advance. Good topics can include the weather, food, transportation.

We also discussed talking about decorations or photos someone has on their desk or office. That can help put the other person at ease.


Tips on Meeting People

Show empathy

I can help to put yourself in their shoes. For instance, if you see someone is wearing new shoes…. Imagine they still need to break in their shoes. Their feet are uncomfortable!

Send questions in advance

It can also help to send questions in advance, particularly if you’re job hunting. This is a low-pressure method to ask for support. For instance, you can say:

“I’m not seeking a job from you or anyone you know, but I’m looking to move into [name job area] and I’d like to get your opinion about [the information you’re looking for].”

When having conversations with extroverts:

Extroverts can have a tendency to dominate the conversation. Sending questions in advance can be helpful, to help keep them on track.

Remember to talk to people with whom you feel comfortable:

  • People who’s job it is to talk to you and provide help (help desk, customer support)
  • Friends
  • People in a non-authority role

The most important thing when meeting someone is talking about what you’ve already done.


Telling Stories

Tell people what you’ve already done by telling your story.

There’s a formula to telling a story about one of your accomplishments. It goes like this:

  • Setup: What is the context of the story.
  • Trigger: What changed to get the story going; aka “the challenge”.
  • Plan: What was your plan.
  • Unplanned outcome: How did things go off-track
  • Chaos: How did that lead to chaos/unplanned expectations.
  • Success: How did you resolve the chaos and get things back on track.

Where to use this method:

  • Cover letters & resumes
  • Elevator pitches
  • Anytime someone asks you about yourself

It helps to practice though. (Tips below!)

But, what if the story is negative?

Someone asked if you should tell stories even if they’re negative. The answer is Yes. The reason is that without conflict/chaos, the story doesn’t show growth.


Q & A / Pro-Tips!

A technique to improve your storytelling.

Someone who identified herself as a writer asked a question. She said she worked from home alone so much that she was often surprised by the sound of her voice.

A suggestion was to make a video of yourself talking, or telling a story. Then you can see how you come across to others. But you have to do this at least 6 times, and watch it, if you want the best outcome.

A tip for extroverts

Another person asked about being an extrovert. She said that during an interview she becomes very extroverted. She wasn’t sure how to handle that.

As the speaker mentioned, introversion and extroversion is a spectrum. Not everyone is always introverted or always extroverted.

His suggestion for extroverts is to always take a breath before giving an answer. That helps them slow down.


Final Tips

Planning Ahead

  • Conduct a job campaign, not a job search. A job search is you fitting yourself to the company. A job campaign means creating your own opportunity. Network, make small talk, etc.
  • Be aware and optimistic
  • Know your stories

Take thinking breaks

Smokers go outside to recharge with cigarettes. As an introvert, you should go outside to recharge and collect your thoughts.


Facebook Live

Here’s the Facebook Live stream. I may end up watching this again to refresh my memory. You get the handout / agenda here.

BTW, I was the one who said food is a good topic for small talk. 🙂

They recommend using headphones, if you have difficulty hearing.

Win Sheffield presents Career Management for Introverts. #SIBLEvents #WinSheffield #Introverts #JobHunt #JobHunting #CareerAdvice #CareerCounseling #Free #FreeLecture #LibraryProgram #NYPL

Posted by Career Services NYPL on Wednesday, September 11, 2019


I also published this on Medium: https://medium.com/@alliwalk/notes-from-career-management-for-introverts-from-the-new-york-public-library-c6c4f59f5b3