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How “Cultural Fit” Could Be Masking Unintentional Bias in Teacher Hiring

Recruiting & Hiring

According to a new report from the Frontline Research & Learning Institute, hiring managers believe cultural fit is one of the most influential characteristics in deciding which teachers to hire — even above experience or training. But here’s the problem. Few districts have any clear, systematic way of defining or measuring cultural fit throughout the hiring process.

From the Institute report:

“While over 80% of respondents indicated that their school or district had standardized the hiring process…, only 70% of those with a standardized process indicated that their school or district uses a specific protocol to ensure consistency… and fewer than 5% of respondents reported using a quality protocol.”

Both the research and popular literature on cultural fit strongly suggest that the fundamental ambiguity in the term “cultural fit” has made it a shroud for unspoken, and perhaps unrecognized, hiring biases. As a result, teachers who weren’t the best fit may be less likely to stay in the district long-term, and talented educators may never even be seriously considered as candidates.

Undefined Cultural Fit and Bias Often Go Hand-in-Hand

Let’s be clear. It isn’t wrong to consider how a candidate will fit in your school culture — you want to hire teachers who believe in your school’s mission and share your commitment to helping students succeed. Cultural fit is not the boogeyman. But unconscious bias is, and it thrives in the gray space (“gut feeling”) that exists when cultural fit is not clearly defined and measured.

Without a clear definition of cultural fit, hiring decisions may be inadvertently driven by unconscious bias and justified by nebulous rationale that a candidate is (or isn’t) the perfect cultural fit.

For example, when it comes to hiring, studies have shown that interviewers are significantly more likely to hire candidates who are similar to themselves or are very likeable. It’s surely not a conscious decision (“I’m going to hire this person because they think, talk, live, act or look like me.”) As the very term “unconscious bias” suggests, it’s completely unintentional, and people don’t realize when they’re falling victim to it. That’s what makes it such a sneaky, pervasive problem. Unconscious biases, judgments and assumptions roll up into a gut feeling that this candidate is the right one. Why? They just seem like the right fit.

Remember: everyone — everyone — has unconscious biases. The important thing is being aware of the potential for bias and identifying it whenever possible, so you can be confident that you’re truly hiring the best teachers for your students.

Is There Room for Cultural Fit in Teacher Hiring?

In a nutshell, yes. But it can’t be based on gut feelings that could leave the door open for unconscious bias to flourish. Instead, define what cultural fit truly means for your district. What values should new hires have in order to support the school’s mission and vision? How can you objectively measure those values during the selection process? Then, standardize your hiring process using research-based, quality protocols to ensure that all candidates are being equally evaluated on the same indicators.

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For example, let’s say a district has a strong belief that its educators should share their commitment to continual improvement. So, they have candidates give a sample lesson and a post-lesson reflection in order to help the hiring committee understand if the candidate possesses a growth mindset. In this way, they are both articulating the value they are looking for in a new hire (a growth mindset) and standardizing their evaluation of that value (via the post-lesson reflection.)

By defining cultural fit and establishing clear, consistent methods for evaluating candidates’ fit, you’re empowered to find talented teachers who align to your school’s values, without sacrificing diversity.

One final thought — perhaps instead of looking for cultural fit, your district may be better served by looking for cultural adds — new hires who bring innovative ideas to the school and positively contribute to building a stronger school culture, rather than merely fitting in.

Either way, standardizing the hiring process and setting clear guidelines for how candidates should be evaluated should be a priority for district leaders. Standardized selection protocols can reduce the risk of unconscious bias, protect the district from discrimination claims and ensure that the most qualified candidates are hired to work in your schools.

“A commitment to cultural fit without a clear definition or evaluation scheme is simply a commitment to likeability bias.” – Repairing the Leak: How “Cultural Fit” Rusts the Teacher Pipeline

Annie GrunwellAnnie Grunwell

Annie is a writer and part of the award-winning content team at Frontline Education. She's passionate about learning, exploring data and sharing knowledge. Her specialties include substitute management, the teacher shortage and best practices in human capital management.