Let’s establish one basic fact from the get-go: not all programmers are “brogrammers”.
Nonetheless, that culture permeates most of the tech world, from entire tech companies to the engineering department of a retailer. Floors littered with Nerf darts… video-game-and-beer-fueled team events… the expectation that everyone is available to work until 7pm… those are common manifestations of “brogrammer” culture.
There’s nothing wrong with a good Nerf battle, per se. The trouble is that when the workplace vibe is reminiscent of a frat house, it gives the impression that people who don’t identify as male (read: young, straight, white male) aren’t welcome. What’s worse, that message may not represent how people at the company actually feel! Chances are, they’d be delighted to work with a more balanced set of teammates – if only they could manage to recruit and retain them.
So how did tech get into this mess? And, more importantly, how do we get out?
The rise of the accidental bro-verlords
Imagine you’re founding a start-up. You’ve got to design, build, test, and get to market before your funding runs out. So hiring quickly is the name of the game. Because you’re human, your default is to prefer candidates that are like you. Also, you’re probably a relatively young White or Asian man, given that’s who tends to get funding for their start-ups. Thus, you’ve just founded a company predominantly staffed by young White and Asian men.
Now imagine that scenario played out tens of thousands of times over a decade or two.
If your company isn’t demographically balanced from the start, you can only correct that as fast as you open up new positions. (And that’s assuming you’re willing to buck conventional recruiting wisdom by pro-actively seeking people who aren’t like you. Historically, few founders have even given it a second thought.) Meanwhile, your company culture is solidifying.
Even though the start-up scene became a “scene” fairly recently, none of this is new. Apple, HP, Oracle, and even IBM were start-ups once, too.
How company culture perpetuates itself
Regardless of how big or established your company, it’s natural to prefer working with people you like. And yes: that usually means people who are like you. When hiring managers and recruiters review resumes, they unconsciously favor those that have a familiar feel: a shared educational background, a voice and tone similar to their own, etc. Never mind the fully conscious bias toward resumes boasting a brand-name school like Stanford or a household-name company like Google.
So even before a single phone screen has taken place, the candidate pool has already been chlorinated. This continues throughout the interview process. The “best” answers to interviewers’ questions often equate to “answers that sound like something I would have said”. Candidates who approached questions differently get screened out.
Before the phone screening begins, the candidate pool has already been chlorinated.
Then comes the culture-fit interview. Don’t let its informal feel fool you: this is as high-stakes as it gets. A slight skill deficiency can be overcome with training and mentoring. But if a candidate’s personality doesn’t resonate with the rest of the team, it’s game over.
The cultural homogenization process culminates with a new employee’s first few months on the job. Those who don’t fit the dominant culture tend to self-select out, seeking greener pastures elsewhere. In some cases, they are pushed out.
At no point in this process is the hiring team acting maliciously. They’re just on auto-pilot.
Replacing culture fit with values alignment
About three years ago, Atlassian stopped interviewing for cultural fit and started looking at whether a candidate’s values were aligned with our own. The idea is that people can hold similar values while exhibiting vastly different personalities, which, over time, de-homogenizes a company’s culture. So far, this theory is proving correct.
We started with internal focus groups that helped us identify which behaviors signal values alignment, and which signal misalignment. For example, one of our company values is “be the change you seek”. If a candidate was dissatisfied with something in a previous job, but put up with it for ages and ages or simply found a workaround, that’s a misaligned behavior. However, if their response was to roll up their sleeves and see what they could do to improve it, that shows they live this value.
From there, we generated a set of structured questions around those behaviors and qualities. Does the candidate…
- Drive projects without regard for how they’re affecting others? Or, get it done while being mindful of the point of diminishing returns?
- Leave little room for discussion and debate? Or, actively seek input from others?
- Intentionally withhold information? Or, communicate transparently and constructively?
We then recruited a group of employees – balanced across demographics, job role, and geography – to be dedicated values interviewers. We trained them on the mindset and research informing this change and equipped them with the ready-made questions.
Culture changes. Values don’t.
There are two important things to note for companies considering a similar change to their interview process. First, the values interviewer doesn’t have to be an expert in the job the candidate is applying for. In fact, it’s better if they’re not! This helps them process the candidate’s answers more objectively. Second, you have to take the results of the values interview seriously. For us, a values misalignment amounts to a veto.
Hiring for values alignment only works if…
Naturally, there are caveats. For starters, your current employees have to truly value the values. Being able to recite them from memory isn’t enough. You have to be living them every day. If it’s commonplace for people to reference your company’s values during discussions (in an un-ironic way!), that’s a good sign.
That won’t happen unless your values are actually worth living. Cookie-cutter values like “urgency” or “excellence” are hollow and get used as a weapon as often as not. So choose or revise your values carefully.
Remember that culture changes – but values don’t.
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Special thanks to Sarah Goff-Dupont for her contribution to this article.