With so many variables to consider when hiring, it can be hard to know how much weight to put on one over another. You know you want a candidate with pertinent experience, good references, the right educational qualifications (if applicable), and job-relevant behavioral traits. But how much consideration should you give to a candidate’s fit with your corporate culture? The answer is a resounding: It depends.
When I was doing preliminary research for this blog post, I was surprised to find, all on page one of my search results:
Why It’s Important New Hires Fit a Company’s Culture (Business.com)
Move Beyond Hiring for Culture Fit (Gallup)
Don't Hire for Culture Fit (SHRM)
This rollercoaster of articles matched my own feelings on the matter. Hiring for a cultural fit can be good or bad. It can create a cohesive team, boost morale, and minimize communication struggles, but it can also be exclusionary, unfair, and limiting.
The contradiction comes from all the different ways a company can describe or think about its culture and how they approach hiring for a cultural fit.
Corporate culture refers to the shared values, beliefs, attitudes, and practices that define the way an organization operates and the way its employees interact with each other, customers, and other stakeholders. It is the collective personality of a company and encompasses various aspects of its working environment.
Corporate culture is created both by choice and by circumstance. Leadership can decide on what values, beliefs, and practices to promote and implement, but the nature and type of business contributes to the culture as well. For example, a company that deals extensively with providing a service to the public may naturally be more service oriented than a company that focuses on business-to-business sales. A large, multinational corporation will have a different culture than a small, community-based business.
Since culture is essentially the personality of a company, it would make sense to hire people who fit that personality. And in some ways, it does. Take hiring for a startup, for example. Working for a fledgling company comes with high risks and greater demands. In return, it offers more potential for quick advancement and impressive gains. For some employees, the risk and the possible rewards are highly appealing. For others, the pressure is too much. Hiring someone who is aware of and comfortable with that level of risk can reduce stress both for the employee and the other stakeholders.
Now consider the opposite situation: established organizations that involve hierarchies, set schedules for wage reviews, and complicated processes for advancement (think government agencies or established universities). A person who loves risk and competition and needs continued, rapid growth to stay motivated could wither in this kind of work environment. Meanwhile someone who thrives on security and structure would excel.
It’s logical and practical to look for evidence (via reference checks, interview responses and behavioral assessments) that someone can keep up in a dynamic corporate culture, can stay energized in a competitive culture, or can build relationships effectively in a community centered culture. But if you move beyond considering whether a candidate can stay motivated and productive in your culture to less concrete factors, (do they “click” with your culture? could you see hanging out with them?) this is where hiring for a culture fit can be negative and even put you in legal jeopardy.
The problem with using cultural fit as a reason to select or reject someone is that it paves the way to miss out on well-qualified candidates based on what amounts to a feeling. Or worse, it can be used (either consciously or unconsciously) to disqualify someone on the basis of gender, race, religion, disability or other protected status.
Ruchika Tulshyan from SHRM points to the case where an overqualified candidate had excelled in a lengthy interview process and was then told another candidate was selected because they were deemed a better fit. When asked for feedback, her interviewer had none.
“Considering that she had all the pedigree and all the best references but was then told she wouldn't fit the culture of the institution, she couldn't ignore the only noticeable difference she had with everyone on the selection committee and eventually the person they hired: her identity as a Black woman.”
Even if all the criteria that constitutes a good cultural fit are written down, by nature, some aspects of it are impossible to quantify. That ambiguity leaves candidates free to decide for themselves what about them didn’t “fit” if they aren’t selected (especially if “fit” is given as a reason, as in the example above). If a core value of an organization’s culture is “work hard, play hard” for example, how would you identify a match with that in a potential hire? How do you know your choice of one candidate over another is based on anything more than, “I could see myself getting a beer with that person.” In other words, “they remind me of myself. “
People are notoriously bad at seeing our own biases, and hiring primarily based on cultural fit opens the door to allow biases to interfere with more objective criteria. If the result of this type of hiring is that employees think the same, approach problems the same way, and share the same backgrounds and experiences, it can be a quick path to stagnation.
If growth, innovation, and evolution are goals of your organization (as they should be), then instead of a cultural fit…
A cultural add looks for candidates who bring something new and unique to the company's culture. It values diversity of thought, background, and experience. The idea is that these individuals can introduce fresh perspectives, innovative ideas, and different ways of problem-solving that can benefit the organization.
Seek out candidates whose experiences, accomplishments, education, or ideas can add something new and different to your company, resulting in an even more effective corporate culture. Challenge your possible biases. If your first thought is that someone won’t fit in, explore why you think that, and make sure the reason is based not on assumptions but the information you have about the candidate from reviewing credentials, speaking to references and hearing their interview questions.
Focusing on finding a cultural add doesn’t mean changing your core values and principles. Your company literature, website, social media, and job postings should make the critical aspects of your culture clear. This allows applicants to determine for themselves if they feel they would fit in or if they have something new to bring to your organization. Inviting new perspectives allows the organization and culture to evolve. That is beneficial for everyone!