We have all heard of company culture, and its importance to the success of a business. You can think of it as the way things are done within an organisation; the values and the behaviours that make up the environment your business operates in.

Erik Sandgren, founder of Green Hat People, who are experts at launching and embedding core values, says: “The core values are much more than the moral compass of the company; designed right, they provide the ultimate decision-making tool for employees. Follow the values, and your decision will probably be right. This helps make the organisation much faster in decision making, which is crucial in today’s fast-moving business environment.”

If you don’t have a strong set of values at the core of your organisation, you will struggle to build an effective team. But in the tech industry, where talent is increasingly scarce, a narrow view of what “culture fit” means could get in the way of hiring the best talent for your business.

A Seamless Fit?

Let’s consider an example. You are hiring, and by some stroke of luck, you end up being part of the perfect interview. The candidate gives you the kind of firm handshake that instils confidence. He has all the credentials that you advertised for. In fact, he went to the same college you attended. He loves the outdoors, just like Sean, who will be his new manager.

On his way out, your candidate cracks a great joke about a TV show that you also watched as a kid. You don’t know what it is about him exactly, but you have a gut feeling: this is the right person for my team. You’re smiling. The other interviewees pale by comparison. Have you really made the right decision for your business?

Only 19% of the digital tech workforce is female, compared to 49% across all UK jobs. (2018 Tech Nation Report)

Black, Asian and Ethnic Minorities (BAME) account for 15% of digital tech workers. (2018 Tech Nation Report)

Tech Talent in Short Supply

According to the latest Tech Nation report, over 50% of the UK’s digital tech community is finding that the growth and operations of their businesses are impeded by a shortage of highly skilled employees. Start-ups and small businesses are at risk of finding themselves continually hiring, never able to secure the balanced workforce that would allow them to take advantage of every opportunity.

When asked about their biggest challenge in recruitment, 39% of the companies surveyed by Tech Nation said that they struggle to attract the right people. Additionally, 20% said that their main problem lies with a lack of cultural fit. Clearly, attracting and hiring the right candidates is a bottleneck to success.

But who is the right person, and what are the factors that get in the way of determining what the right “culture fit” means for your business? If the term is used unadvisedly, it can become a shorthand for the kind of “gut feeling” laid out in the interview scenario we considered. This can be a barrier to recruiting a strong, diverse team.

Unconscious Bias

The term unconscious bias refers to the prejudices that influence your decision-making, without you being aware of them. These biases are the product of our cultural background, upbringing and life experience. One of the potential problems with “culture fit” is that of our bias in favour of similarity, which is also known as affinity bias.

Human beings are naturally programmed to respond more positively if they perceive another person as being similar to themselves. Unfortunately, this also means excluding people who are dissimilar. This is a serious problem. Affinity bias in recruitment has also been proven to be a hindrance to corporate growth. A recent study by McKinsey shows that while gender and ethnic diversity are clearly correlated with profitability, women and minorities remain underrepresented.

The Impact of Affinity Bias

To explore the concrete impact of affinity bias, let’s return to our recruitment scenario. The candidate you hired is happily plodding along within your organisation. As you expected, he gets on well with his manager, Sean. They regularly go hiking together. Sean sees something of himself in the new guy, and before long, gives him a promotion. One Monday morning, in a meeting, you realise that you have never once heard your latest acquisition articulate an idea that anyone else in the team couldn’t have come up with.

Meanwhile, one of the candidates that you didn’t hire has decided to settle for a lower-paid position with your direct competitor. She does an excellent job and brings innovative ideas to the table. Usually, they aren’t implemented, because most of her colleagues don’t take her seriously. In time, she sets up her own business, which competes with yours. Watching her achieve rapid growth because of her cutting-edge ideas, you realise that she could have been a much better addition to your team, if affinity bias hadn’t gotten in the way.

Gender-diverse companies are 15% more likely to earn above-average revenue. (McKinsey)

Ethnically-diverse companies are 35% more likely to earn above-average revenue. (McKinsey)

Lack of Diversity Undermines Product Development

We have now seen the way that unconscious bias can get in the way of recruiting the best candidates for your business. But in the tech sector, a lack of diversity can have an unforeseen negative impact on the development of products, too.

This was demonstrated in a recent study into the effectiveness of facial recognition software designed to recognise gender. The study revealed that while the highest failure rate for identifying light-skinned males was 0.8%, the highest failure rate for identifying women with darker skin was 34%.

The reason for this difference was simple: the data-sets used to create these systems were 86% composed of lighter-skinned subjects. Clearly, the team responsible for designing the software did not identify and resolve this issue. This example shows that, if design processes aren’t critically assessed, the effectiveness of new technology can be severely compromised.

The Advantage of Diverse Voices

The development of digital voice assistants is another case where a diverse team would have been able to prevent flaws in a product. Leah Fessler wrote an article for Quartz criticising the subservience of market-leading voice assistants, which generally come equipped with default female voices and feminine names like Alexa. For example, Fessler discovered that when confronted with sexual slurs, Apple’s Siri responded: “I’d blush if I could.”

These problematic responses could have been prevented, if the team building Siri had included (female) members who were in a position to challenge their colleagues to come up with something better. If precautions aren’t taken, AI will exhibit the biases of its developers. This is one of the reasons why promoting diversity is key to creating the next generation of technology which will optimally serve all of its users.

In short, diversity can help your team come up with a bigger and better range of ideas, and then consider those ideas from a perspective that better represents your end users. So how can you make your corporate culture an asset to the recruitment process, rather than an obstacle?

Getting the Right Fit

When articulating your corporate culture, it is crucial to distinguish between values that really matter to your organisation, and superficial features. For instance, recruiting people who work well in a team may be crucial to your success, but that doesn’t mean everyone has to have the exact same sense of humour. So “team player” would be the quality you keep in mind when recruiting, and “dry wit” doesn’t make the cut.

Tech companies are now looking to build their company culture from the ground up, getting their whole team involved. Erik Sandgren insists: “Customers are more diverse than ever. Having a workforce that reflects this is good for business – because it helps you understand and serve the customers better.”

Once you have established inclusive, well-considered company values, you will be able to test your new candidates against it. When you have done this, you can draw on a wider pool of candidates, without compromising on their competencies, or on the core values that make your company tick. In the tech sector, that recruitment advantage could give you the edge over your competitors. The diversity of thought within your team will be a strength in its own right. You might even make it one of your core values.