Patagonia’s HR chief says he reads resumes ‘from the bottom up’ to avoid the culture-fit trap

Dean Carter is head of human resources, finance, and legal at Patagonia.

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Dean Carter is head of human resources, finance, and legal at Patagonia.
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Patagonia

  • Patagonia HR chief Dean Carter said he looks for job candidates who are passionate about environmental activism – and also have other interests.
  • He wants to avoid hiring “climate drones” and building a uniform company culture.
  • That’s why he reads resumes bottom-up, looking first at a candidate’s hobbies and volunteer experience.
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If you’re interviewing for a job at Patagonia, the first question you’ll hear is: “What drew you here?”

A good answer goes something like this: “I am concerned about the planet and I want to do something about it.”

At Patagonia, the outdoor apparel company founded in 1973, the stated mission is “to save our home planet.” The company is also known for its progressive offerings like on-site childcare, a three-day weekend every other week, and a promise to bail out any employee who gets arrested for peacefully protesting harm to the environment.

Unsurprisingly, the ideal leader at Patagonia is committed to environmental activism – an outdoorsy type. (“We seek out ‘dirtbags’ who feel more at home in a base camp or on the river than they do in the office,” reads a book by Patagonia’s founder, Yvon Chouinard.)

But a well-worn surfboard and post-protest jail stint aren’t enough to make you the perfect Patagonian. You’ll also need to bring something new and different to the company culture. Patagonia doesn’t want to hire employees who are identical in their interests and experiences. Above all, Patagonia wants people who are interested in helping others, whether that’s by volunteering at an animal shelter or singing in their community choir.

That’s according to Patagonia’s head of human resources, finance, and legal, Dean Carter. Business Insider spoke to Carter at LinkedIn’s Talent Connect conference, which took place in Dallas in September.

Carter said it’s crucial that Patagonia employees feel inspired by the company’s mission. At the same time, Carter said, he wants to avoid hiring “climate drones,” or people who have no interests beyond saving the planet. Otherwise, he’d wind up with a relatively homogeneous company culture, where everyone thought and behaved the same way.

Carter’s approach to hiring is an example of de-emphasizing “culture fit,” as management experts begin sounding the alarm on this practice. These experts have found that looking for people who will vibe with your company culture, or who would be a great addition to the team happy hour, often results in an organization where everyone looks and acts similarly – and no one has any new ideas.

Patagonia wants people who are generally interested in helping others

Patagonia is known for making environmental activism part of its business model.

The company donates 1% of sales annually to grassroots environmental groups, according to its website. Since 1985, it’s donated $89 million to these groups. Patagonia is also a certified B Corp, a certification given to organizations that add value to employees and the environment (and not just shareholders).

And in September 2019, Patagonia was named a United Nations Champion of the Earth.

So Carter looks first and foremost for job candidates who are on board with that strategy – “super stoked,” in his words. These candidates embrace Patagonia’s core values, which include “build the best product,” by focusing on function, repairability, and durability, and “use business to protect nature,” like when the company put its $10 million Trump tax cut into the planet.

An employee who identifies with those company values is typically a better performer who’s likely to stick around.

Tactically speaking, that means Carter starts candidate searches by reading résumés “from the bottom up.” The very first section he checks out is the person’s hobbies and interests. In fact, when he posts job openings on his personal LinkedIn page, Carter encourages candidates to include their volunteerism and outdoor interests.

“We’re looking for people who are passionate about the planet, beyond recycling and composting,” Carter said. For example, maybe the person has worked for an organization that protects the environment.

But Carter also wants to see if the person has listed other passions and hobbies. Screening for these additional passions serves a dual purpose.

First, it helps Patagonia find people who value others’ well being. “I want to know that you care about something beyond yourself,” Carter said during his keynote presentation at Talent Connect.

Second, it’s a way to avoid hiring the same person over and over again. It’s all too easy to fall into a pattern of hiring people who care only about the environment, Carter told Business Insider.

Hiring for culture fit can stymie diversity if managers are choosing people who are just like them

The overarching goal Carter is working toward is “hiring for culture add, not just a cultural fit,” he said. The ideal candidate expresses values that align with Patagonia’s mission and brings a fresh perspective to the organization, based on their previous career experience or their outside-of-work passions.

It’s probably a wise move. Research suggests that hiring for culture fit can be dangerous, especially if hiring managers use it as a proxy for success on the job.

Lauren Rivera, associate professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, studied hiring at elite professional-services firms and found evidence of bias toward candidates who looked like their potential bosses, or had comparable lifestyles or backgrounds. Maybe, for example, they both love sailing or grew up in the same zip code.

Read more: The cocreator of Netflix’s culture deck explains how to decide which employees to fire – and how to avoid the pitfalls that render so many startup founders ‘irrelevant’

Hiring managers “might be motivated to hire the most enjoyable over the most competent candidates,” Rivera wrote. “They may hire for themselves rather than for the organization.”

Not to mention, hiring – and promoting – on the basis of culture fit can stymie diversity. In their book, “The Class Ceiling,” the sociologists Daniel Laurison and Sam Friedman write that sponsorship by someone senior in the organization “disproportionately favors those from privileged backgrounds.”

Yet research suggests that diverse business teams are more innovative.

Read more: The reason Melinda Gates almost quit her Microsoft job in the 1980s reveals an unfortunate truth about what it really takes to get ahead at work

At Patagonia, Carter tries to separate a person’s core values from their specific background.

His goal is to create a company of “people working toward shared values,” as opposed to a “cult” masquerading as a business. “That’s not what we’re going for,” he said.