Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Reconceptualizing "Fit": Theory, Practice, Praxis

As presently constructed, the practice of hiring based on "fit" is problematic. Fit too often means "people like me" to hiring managers, which perpetuates a vicious cycle of homogeneity.

In librarianship, that homogeneity is reflected in the demographics of our profession: white, cisgendered, middle-class, and predominantly female, with men both historically and presently overrepresented in positions of leadership (I am a data point here) and those pertaining to library technology.
Evidence shows the number of women in senior leadership roles has increased over the years. From the 1930s to the 1950s it was the natural order for men to be heads of academic libraries, particularly major research libraries. Research studies of the decades from the 1960s to the 1980s provide evidence of a shift from the assumption that various personal and professional characteristics could be identified to account for differences in the number of men and of women recruited into senior positions in academic libraries. Despite this, women remained vastly under-represented in director positions in academic libraries (Delong, 2013).  
This over-representation continued into the 1990s, and persists today.

Fit is an excuse for unconscious bias, as well as an excuse for the conscious kind. Norms of what a librarian "should look like" in terms of race, class, and gender identity, among other factors, are all enforced via fit. The homogeneity of librarianship is overdetermined, but I suspect that fit plays a role in why it looks nothing like the United States population. Librarianship is not even remotely representative.

It gets more depressing: American Library Association membership is getting less diverse in terms of race, and according to data (pdf) from American Community Survey Estimates Applied to Institute for Museum and Library Services and National Center for Education Statistics in 2009, there were over 118,000 librarians in the United States. Under 600 of them were black men.

This sameness has deleterious effects. It leads to groupthink, to monoculture. More diverse groups get better results in terms of:
  • creativity and innovation
  • decision-making
  • problem-solving
  • scientific research
In part, this is because social diversity is a form of informational diversity.
Simply interacting with individuals who are different forces group members to prepare better, to anticipate alternative viewpoints and to expect that reaching consensus will take effort. (Source is the above link.)
In the language of the market, diversity improves your bottom line.

And yet, I hire on fit. That's come at no small cost. I know I've been unable to hire people I think would make great librarians because of fit.
Applicant 1, you are brilliant. You will be an amazing librarian, probably a better one than any of the other applicants I've seen in this round of interviews. You understand our mission and you're already committed to it. You've lived it. You code switched three times in the interview in ways that felt organic and natural, not forced. But you won't become a great librarian here, and I'm disappointed in myself for writing that. I realize that oftentimes a discussion of "fit" is an excuse for all sorts of biases in hiring, especially in academia. However, fit applies here. As a manager, I have no idea, none, how I would harness the frenzied energy and passion you would bring to this job. I get the sense that you would kill for librarianship. These two things, the energy level and enthusiasm, terrify me. Our styles do not mesh. There is a mentor out there more suited to your needs. You'll find that person. But not here.
I work at a library with a staff of nine; we need to get along. There's an awful lot of cross-training that goes on, six of us can copy-catalog and four are interlibrary loan wizards, for example. Fit matters. And if we are to avoid the silos within libraries I've seen elsewhere, it matters even more.

What I want to do is to rescue fit, to reclaim it, because the fit described at the top of this post should not be the fit we think of. That fit leads to the decline of organizations. That fit, looking at the demographics of librarianship, above, perpetuates white supremacy.

If hiring based on fit is like a puzzle, then the homogeneous practice of fit is like choosing the same piece, over and over again.

The theory of fit, however, is different. Hire people that complement each other, that minimize each other's blind spots, and that come together to form a complete organization. That should be fit.

Do you have skills other people don't, do you think in ways that other people don't, do you have life experiences that other people don't? If so, then you fit, because those are plusses, and we'll try to get at that in the hiring process. Then we'll try to get at it in our workflows, creating safe spaces for voicing dissent and fostering experimentation.

The more organizations that do this, the more hiring managers and human resource departments that do this, the closer we'll come to having a praxis of fit instead of what we have now.

DeLong, Kathleen. “Career Advancement and Writing About Women Librarians: A Literature Review.” Evidence Based Library and Information Practice 8, no. 1 (2013): 59–75.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this. Yes, fit matters--but not the socioeconomic/racial kind, as much as whether the setting will make use of the applicant's skills, let them contribute in useful ways, and be a place they're learning as well. I've definitely had jobs and candidates with more or less 'fit', but have always been glad with people gave me a chance & have tried to make spaces for those with less experience or cultural privilege as well.