You may have heard of the “airport test.” Common in industries like management consulting, investment banking or technology, it involves the hiring manager asking themselves, “Would I want to be stuck in an airport with this person?”
It’s about more than skills and talents. The "airport test" focuses on likability, connection and commonalities. Many managers consider it a vital question for assessing the candidate’s overall “culture fit.” And on one level, it seems reasonable: Managers want to get a sense of how applicants will mesh with other office personalities or how they’ll perform in front of more relaxed settings with potential clients.
Even in industries like retail or hospitality, there are a number of companies invested deeply in culture fit. AirBnB’s CEO published an open letter in 2013 asking new employees not to mess up the culture and Zappos has a full culture fit interview which is weighted a full 50 percent when deciding whether to make a hire.
But while organizational culture can be a critical component of a company’s health and success, screening too rigidly for culture fit can inadvertently cause exclusion—or even discrimination. Decades of psychological research have suggested that we like people who we perceive as similar to us, whether it’s on the basis of shared race, ethnicity, gender, or even personal interests. Because we’re attracted to those who have things in common with us, focusing on general “likeability” and the degree to which you’d feel comfortable spending casual time with someone can present a potential issue. Certainly, there are traits deemed as likeable that can tie in to how people will perform at work, such as friendliness, agreeableness, empathy and warmth. But if hiring managers are assessing candidate fit and likeability without deeper examination, or on the basis of things like shared hobbies, interests, sports, or other measures, they risk creating a culture that’s homogeneous, and unwelcoming to “outsiders.”
A Google product manager, Satyajeet Salgar, explained to Business Insider why he thought the Airport Test was bad for hiring: “I look for many things while interviewing, but the one thing I explicitly avoid trying to think about is the ‘Airport Test’...Thinking of the interview process in this way leads to all sort of sub-optimal decisions. It makes it that much easier to disregard someone of different race, background, gender or even lower proficiency in a language. It makes one, on the margin, favor compatibility over talent, which in the long run can be death to a firm.”
Netflix’s former Chief Talent Officer Patty McCord has also spoken out against the dangers of hiring for fit over quality. As she told Harvard Business Review’s IdeaCast last January, “It’s about hiring a team member that’s going to help you get great stuff done on time with quality and figuring out what the problem is….so when you start with the problem rather than the fit, then sometimes you find that people who aren’t like you fit just fine because they’re really good at stuff that you’re not really good at doing.”
That doesn’t mean that organizations can’t consider how a candidate will fit in with their culture, but there are better ways to screen for fit that are less susceptible to bias.
- To start, the organization’s employees should be regularly participating in anti-bias and diversity trainings to bring these human tendencies to everyone’s awareness, so that interviewers and decision makers can engage in deeper reflection about their subjective perceptions of candidates.
- Another important step is defining the organizational culture and creating tangible descriptions of what elements or traits make up the culture. Having a list of qualities to measure and assess against will reduce the reliance on feelings.
- Once there is a tangible list of cultural values, there are different means of assessing candidates on those traits, like psychometric or behavioral measures. If, for example, a culture values integrity, there are metrics that are designed for workplace-related integrity testing. Employers can also integrate integrity-related questions into the interview, following the general “Give me an example of a time when you..." It’s important to note that this testing should be done in combination with other interviewing methods and not relied on as the sole indicator.
- Variance in not only interviewing methods but also in who is conducting the interviews can go a long way. The organization should ensure that they’re using a variety of trained interview and hiring managers and that one employee isn’t solely responsible for assessing how well a candidate will fit into the company culture.
Understand that recruiting and interviewing are just the beginning. Diversity and inclusion isn’t something that can be achieved through silos or one-off efforts; it must be prioritized and centered at the front of decision-making, policy changes, and subject to continuous learning and development.