Why Hiring for Cultural Fit Might Not Be The Right Strategy

Why Hiring for Cultural Fit Might Not Be The Right Strategy

Emily Smykal

Most companies have a personality—a culture—that is recognizable, yet intangible. Differences in the way decisions are made, the way customers are treated, the way employees are promoted—corporate cultures can encompass every aspect of the workplace. So it’s not surprising that the concept of “cultural fit” has become a buzzword among recruiters and senior leaders.

Cultural fit, based on the behaviors and attitudes that a business wants to see in its employees, typically refers to the way things are done at a specific organization. Shared assumptions about internal communication, employee conduct as well as interests, and actions and consequences all fall under cultural fit—along with the physical, tangible, aspects of a workplace that reinforce these shared assumptions.

Are your employees afraid to speak up when they disagree, or notice a problem? Do your meetings fall flat as everyone ends up staring at their smartphone? These behaviors are direct reflections of your company culture. Hiring for cultural fit suggests your recruiters are looking for candidates who will easily adapt to these patterns of behavior.

In this post we’ll examine some of the pros and cons of cultural fit, and discuss better ways of looking at this recruitment mainstay.

Cultural Fit: The Positives

We often seek out personal relationships with like-minded people, and this tendency carries over to the corporate world when we hire for cultural fit. Many managers want to work with and supervise people that they like, mentoring versions of themselves to help build up the organization.

Perhaps the the most common argument for hiring for cultural fit is the assumption that it will make employees happier and more productive. The thinking goes something like this: My team and I like doing things a certain way, so we should hire more people who agree, and as we do our team will get stronger. Along these lines, it is also assumed that hiring for cultural fit will also reduce turnover.

Online retailer Zappos is one example of a company that stresses cultural fit in hiring decisions—they even have a website dedicated to promoting their corporate culture and providing tools for other businesses to follow their model. But it’s important to make a distinction here between cultural fit and core values. A candidate who shares your beliefs is not the same as a candidate who shares your behaviors.

Cultural Fit: The Negatives

Core values may be a better way to describe what companies like Zappos are trying to achieve. This refers specifically to the beliefs and related behaviors your company wants to promote. Cultural fit on the other hand is a much more hazy concept. More often than not, it’s used to hire a candidate we’d like to hang out with more so than another. As a result, cultural fit has become a way to hire based on prejudices without overtly telling your HR team to discriminate against those candidates you don’t like.

A hiring practice that leads to discrimination is obviously a bad thing. And multiple studies have shown that reducing diversity by recruiting “people like me” can be detrimental to the success of your business. Homogeneity can lead to complacency and overconfidence, as like-minded employees repeat and reinforce the same ideas over and over.

A lack of diversity in people, backgrounds, skills, opinions, and ways of getting things done has been directly linked to less innovation and lower performance in the workplace. A new employee who might not look like your cultural ideal, but who has the right skills, will challenge your existing employees to think differently more so than another cookie-cutter version of yourself. And companies that are perceived to be more open to diversity are viewed more positively by outsiders.

How Recruiters Should Consider Cultural Fit

Even though hiring for cultural fit feels right intuitively, the data falls in favor of hiring for diversity instead. But that doesn’t mean your talent acquisition strategy should ignore your corporate culture. Core values are important to any organization, and they can be advertised to applicants alongside your openness to diversity, and other aspects of your employer brand.

Start by separating your organization’s cultural patterns from its core values. A penchant for House of Cards is not a core value, but prioritizing customer satisfaction is, and so is having a passion for getting more done with less. Once your recruitment team is clear on the values your company wants to see in candidates, all other cultural norms should be put on the back burner.

And keep in mind that a highly skilled, high performing candidate who doesn’t seem to fit in at first glance can also have many benefits. They may impact your existing culture in a positive way through diversity of thought, smart risk-taking, and openness to making mistakes and learning new methods. If your corporate culture is open-minded and flexible, you can build teams that provide engaging work and leverage employee differences, while promoting your corporate values.

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