Within HR and recruitment, we’ve been using the term “cultural fit” – generally defined as the ability of an employee to fit with the core beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors that make up an organization – for a decade or two.
The popularity of the concept has ebbed and flowed (see the very cool trend chart here) but as an HR professional who works extensively on executive searches, I seldom have a week go by where the topic of cultural fit isn’t brought up. At times, it’s thrown around relatively casually, without much consideration for its implications, like when a hiring manager deciding between two equally qualified candidates selects the one that’s a “better fit” often based on “gut feelings.”
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For this reason alone, it’s my view that we need to rethink cultural fit because hiring for fit is more of a myth than a reality . . . and it may even be disadvantageous to your organization. It’s not that I think cultural fit is entirely unimportant . . . but I do seriously question the feasibility of hiring for fit in an imperfect world.
First of all, defining a single corporate culture is difficult. Within one organization, culture may vary widely from location to location and even from department to department, depending on that function’s utility to the company as a whole. Think about your own organization, for instance. Salespeople and individual contributors, on the one hand, are typically rewarded based on individual goals. On the other, internal corporate departments are often rewarded based on how well they collaborate to run the inner workings of your company. The cultures within those two job groups – within the same business – may be diametrically opposed, as they probably need to be!
Secondly, consider another dimension of corporate culture: it’s often aspirational, rather than a reflection of current reality. Just pick any large corporation and take a look at the way culture is described on the website’s pages devoted to careers and job openings. Then, ask a friend who works there what it’s REALLY like. Or check out some of the sites such as vault.com for insider reviews. Does what the company describes as its culture and reality align? There are exceptions, of course. Many companies such as Zappos who seek to attract a younger workforce lead with well-defined cultures and are able to attract a very specific type of candidate as a result. But, even within those companies, it’s not entirely uncommon to experience cultural chasms between the techies and the business folks (the “suits”).
Third, simply put, we don’t live in a perfect world. There is, to the best of my knowledge, no one-size fits all verifiable assessment or screening methodology that accurately measures or predicts cultural fit. Nor is there a foolproof set of interview questions to uncover cultural fit with any degree of predictability. Of course, there are certain behavioral interview questions you can ask to evaluate whether the individual is likely to be a fit. (Note the emphasis on the word “likely”!).
The questions should center on the candidate’s track record. By asking “what’s worked for you in the past,” you’ll get a great sense of the type of environment in which that individual will succeed. By asking situational questions, such as “What type of environment are you most comfortable working in?” or “If you got to pick your next boss, what would he/she be like?, you will learn a lot about the individual’s ability to fit in. Another great way to gauge fit is to watch the person interact with potential future colleagues as they walk around the office and/or go to lunch with them. Better yet, have them stay for a full day.
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In Greek mythology, Achilles – a hero of the Trojan War – was thought to be invincible after his mother had dipped him into the powerful protective waters of the magical River Styx. Unfortunately, she dangled him into the water by his heel, which stayed dry and made him vulnerable to a well-aimed arrow.
Avoiding Group Think
Fourth and finally, hiring for cultural fit can lead to a lack of diversity. This can make you vulnerable to legal action for perceived or real discriminatory practices. It can also impact your organization’s ability to innovate and thrive in changing times. If, for instance, your business needs more disruptive thinking in order to succeed, hiring for cultural fit can perpetuate a “groupthink” mentality and inhibit the hiring of innovators (for more on the connection between culture fit and innovation, go here).
It’s also critical to realize that cultural fit is not achieved by hiring the same type of people. Borrowing an example from Harvard Business Review, “… If collaboration is a key organizational value, people who have a genuine, authentic belief in the value of collaborative work will be a stronger culture fit than those who are more comfortable as individual contributors. This doesn’t mean that only people who come from one particular background or have one particular set of experiences are collaborative . . . a deep-rooted belief in collaboration could just as easily be found in a candidate with a corporate background as a candidate who has worked in the nonprofit sector or a candidate who has spent most of her career in the military.”
All of this is why we’re seeing a trend to discard the term altogether. Facebook, for one, in an effort to become more diverse, has stopped using the term throughout the interview process and hiring managers are required to participate in a “managing unconscious bias” training program.
In sum, there are a lot of things we do in HR that need routine updating. Some of these are tactical, such as upgrading technology or fine-tuning our use of social media to attract better candidates. Others are mandatory, to stay in compliance with the law. Just as importantly, we also need to periodically assess whether the common tenets and beliefs we use as guideposts are still workable. “Cultural fit” is one of those concepts that every organization needs to examine periodically and, in light of the considerations outlined above, make their own determination whether it is still relevant and beneficial.
Andrew W. Mitchell, Managing Editor
Contributed by J. James O’Malley, Partner at TalentRISE. Jim has spent 25 years on both sides of the table, developing HR and talent solutions to align leadership, talent, and business needs. He joined TalentRISE in 2012 as a partner and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.