Cultural fit, Recruitment and cricket; getting uncomfortable pays

Matt Dean




I’m doing a lot of work with clients looking to make their selection and hiring processes more inclusive. Something I say often is that systemic discrimination is built on series of well-intentioned decisions, all of which feel normal. I heard a story last week that has really made me think about just how deep this goes; how inbuilt our systems are and how hard we are going to have to try to be genuinely anti-racist or anti-sexist.

In 2005 I set up the junior section of my local cricket club. I have loved the game since I was introduced to it aged 10 by a bespectacled, cerebral teacher at my middle school, Mr Webb, who spent his evenings and weekends running the local borough side. I ran a wandering side that lasted 30 years and wanted to give something back. My local club feared extinction unless they secured a flow of talent. I put my hand up and a few years later we had 80 kids playing in five age groups. I wanted to introduce kids to cricket who wouldn’t have the opportunity otherwise.

Over time I got disillusioned; our main role became providing kids from private schools with their second or third game a week. We had a few notable successes. Some of them still play. One of them – a child who played in our first age group team – has grown up (as they do) and recently got down to the last couple for a job in the sort of financial services firm I often work. It’s a tough market and they’d done well to get to a final interview with the head bloke. I heard they’d said about the last interview: “it was great, we talked about cricket for 20 minutes”, to which their mother had loyally replied: “well if you get that job, you’ll have Matt Dean to thank!”

Credit where it’s due, they wouldn’t have loved cricket if I hadn’t introduced them to it. It’s also true, when I reflect on it, that an ability to chat knowledgably and entertainingly about any number of sports has helped me greatly in many situations, some social, many professional. Thirty something years ago talking about Alec Bedser and Charlie George was a large part of my relationship with my first career mentor. That’s ok though surely?

It is ok if you understand that some people won’t know or care who Alec and Charlie are or want to talk about them. It’s ok if the people making recruitment and development decisions are curious and genuinely want to find out what every person they are recruiting or developing finds interesting and wants to talk about. The simple truth though is that it’s just easier for most of us to chat casually about stuff that’s natural to us; and that we form relationships with others who do that easily.

Something I always reassure leaders with is that nobody is trying to stop them making relationships with people they connect most easily with – at work or elsewhere. We’re human beings and that’s what we do. But what I want leaders (and here recruiters) to do is to notice that they are doing that and to make some effort to make someone feel at home even if they don’t know that Alec had a twin and Charlie a reputation.

At the beginning of an interview, when you’re looking to put a candidate at their ease, perhaps ask them what they’d like to talk about to break the ice. And mean it; be curious and non-judgemental about their subject, ask questions and listen.

Perhaps the biggest bias that we need to overcome is the idea that we should only recruit people we can be comfortable with easily. What about the people who we can be comfortable with but only with a little bit of effort on our part? We all have the social skills, just look at how good we are with clients! The truth is that many recruitment processes bestow too much importance upon cultural fit – for which read more of the same. How about finding people who value our standards and culture and bring something new that we don't already have much of?

One of the quotes I use most frequently in my recruitment work is, “we spend more time at work than we do with our families [at least we did pre-Covid], surely we have to get on with the people we hire?’ It's a bias. The person isn't applying for the role of your friend. Use a process that’s designed to find you the most competent person for the role offered. If getting on with people you don't immediately connect with is a competency you will need in the job, then make sure you assess how good candidates are at it. 

You might be surprised. If the person has relationship making skills, the chances are you'll get on with them. And your team will benefit from cognitive diversity, increasingly if you make them feel at home too.