The Pros and Cons of Hiring for ‘Cultural Fit’

December, 2017

Is hiring for “cultural fit” sustainable?

Company culture at human resources technology company Bonfyre App emphasizes trust, care and empathy, and the employees who align to these values tend to excel. To determine cultural fit, Rob Seay, the St. Louis-based company’s HR director, said it makes sure to spend time with candidates outside of the office in less rigid environments like coffee shops to get to know prospective hires, learn about their character and how they approach difficult situations.

Seay said employee alignment to company culture influences worker satisfaction, engagement and retention. If an environment focuses on being collaborative and team-oriented, but individuals focus only on individual achievements, “that environment might be really difficult for them to really work to their true potential,” Seay said.

Despite the importance of company culture, few organizations do well at establishing it properly. According to research by professional services firm Deloitte on the topic, only 12 percent of respondents indicated their organization was “excellent at driving the desired culture.”

To identify company culture, business leaders must think about the values that drive their business, said Katie Bouton, CEO of Koya Leadership Partners, a national executive search firm focused on mission-driven organizations based in Newburyport, Massachusetts. “That’s absolutely critical to being able to begin to assess for culture fit.”

Bouton sees “cultural fit” as an important tool, especially for younger generations, who she said don’t see a lot of difference between their work and personal lives in terms of how they live out their values. “Since we spend a third of our lifetime at work, I think people are really looking for that kind of alignment,” she said.

Organizations are getting better at defining company culture. Although terminology of “cultural fit” became popular primarily in the past decade, it’s only been recently that organizations became more particular about defining their principles, said Justin Hirsch, president and HR executive search lead for Jobplex Inc., a midlevel executive search firm. Business leaders are doing well at publishing detailed information about their cultures in handbooks, job posts and other places they broadcast their employer brand.

“Employees are more apt to join organizations that they find their values aligned to, and employees are keenly interested in a collaborative, team-oriented organization in which advancement is earned and communication is open,” Hirsch said. He advised continuing to document cultural leadership principles and integrate that language in the employer brand. “It’s something to be proud of,” Hirsch said.

Fraught for Fit

The problem, however, is in assessing cultural fit. It’s very much a feeling at times, Hirsch said, making it hard to quantify and inviting the potential for bias in the hiring process. The innate subjectivity is a challenge in hiring for cultural fit.

Another issue is around diversity in the workplace. People tend to gravitate to those similar to themselves, Hirsch said, which then undermines organizational efforts to diversify the employee population.

To avoid impacting efforts to maintain or gain a diverse workforce, business leaders must first define what they mean by culture fit. “What you really mean is values fit,” Bouton said. Then, they should assign a set of questions for the interview process, as well as train the people doing the interviewing. “That’s a nice check and balance for bias,” Bouton said. Also, look out for blanket statements, such as “they’re just not the right fit,” and be prepared to ask for more specifics about why interviewers felt that way, Bouton said.

Despite the extra time and effort this process takes, Bouton said the rigor is worth it. “Because employees stay longer when their values align, you save so much time down the road that that extra couple of weeks it might take to do a rigorous hiring process is well worth the effort,” she said.

Also, Bouton warned about the differences between assessing for values vs. working norms. Things like staying late and getting drinks after work is dangerous territory to use as an evaluation tool. “What you want to focus on is rather the reason that people get up in the morning and come to work,” she said.

Terminology of “cultural fit” still has negative connotations when it comes to diversity and inclusion, however. As a result, some companies are working to stop using the phrase, Bouton said, adding that she’s heard rumblings of “network fit” and “values fit.”

Another term making the rounds in hiring communities is “culture add,” said Jim Conti, people lead at Chicago-based Dscout Inc., a consumer research software company. Culture add takes the existing idea of a foundational culture and then pushes it to the next level by seeking people who have a variety of experiences and backgrounds who can add to the organizational culture instead of replicating what’s already at the company. “Culture fit doesn’t really push you to challenge yourself,” Conti said.

Bonfyre’s Seay also advised that companies be open to change and even be ready to do away with cultural fit should they experience talent attraction issues. In industries that lack the sufficient supply for the demands placed on the talent pool, business leaders might need to only look for the essentials needed for the role.

Finally, it’s important to acknowledge that companies’ cultures will not remain stagnant, Seay said. As companies go through reorganizations or mergers and acquisitions, it’s inevitable that their cultures will change. Therefore, business leaders should be open to changing or adding values to their cultures. “Just like everything else, I think it’s going to continue to potentially evolve and change,” Seay said.

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