Hiring for Cultural Fit? Here’s What You Should Know

Working within Talent Acquisition and HR, I hear this line all of the time, “we hire for cultural fit, first and foremost”. But what does that mean, and how is that fit assessed?

Well, sometimes it’s whatever a hiring manager wants it to mean. And that can be a big issue, leading to poor hiring decisions fraught with bias or even legal liability. On the other side of things, a properly defined corporate culture and values can empower employers to make faster and better hiring decisions. Before I go too far, let me clarify that I’m not definitively saying cultural fit is more important than targets, results, capabilities, competencies and performance. Hiring can be complex process that requires the assessment and weighing of multiple criteria. However, “fit” itself is a significant factor in that equation. So where do you start?

First, you should look at why hiring for cultural fit is important for your organization. Stakeholder buy-in or sponsorship is essential in this process. I think most companies and organizations can agree that if an employee’s values and motivations don’t align with their own, it can become a big issue. Alternatively, strong cultural fit can inspire performance and increase loyalty. A study conducted by The University of Iowa confirms that employees who fit well with their organization, coworkers, and management have greater job satisfaction, less turnover and higher on-the-job performance. So, it’s not exactly ground breaking stuff when we talk about the importance of cultural fit. Drilling down into this makes business sense.

So, what exactly is cultural fit?

This is the question that employers should ask, and make decisive efforts to define. Broadly speaking, cultural fit means that an employee’s beliefs and behaviours are in alignment with their employer’s core values and company culture. For each company that can mean something inherently different. Culture in a workplace comes about in two distinct ways. Sometimes, it’s deliberately defined, nurtured and protected at the conception of the organization and refined over time. More commonly, culture comes about unintentionally as a collective sum of the beliefs, experiences and behaviours of those on the team. Either way, your organization will have a culture – for better or worse. If you are a leader in your organization, you should take control of your destiny and ensure your company and its employees are moving in the same direction. As mentioned above, it makes business sense and helps you select the right people when building your team.

Hiring for cultural fit starts with being able to clearly articulate what the organizational culture is. What are the aligned values, beliefs, behaviours and experiences that make up the organization’s environment? Some organizations will approve the creation of a company mission statement and company values. But a poorly defined culture, or a definition that doesn’t match reality is equally problematic. It’s important to reflect, and ask yourself these questions:

  • Does the culture you articulated match reality or is it wishful thinking?
  • Are your company values actionable or do they live in an employee handbook / on a plaque on a wall?
  • Do they influence business decisions and bring people together or are they essentially lip service?

If the answers to any of the above questions make you pause, there’s likely a misalignment between what you said your culture was compared to what exists – and that causes strain. You’ll bring on the wrong people and potentially turn away the right people for your business. Your hiring decisions, policy and direction as a company will be, more than likely, inconsistent or worse. If culture isn’t defined, or the definition does not match reality, cultural fit can start to mean different things, or simply, “are they like me?”  This can lead to discriminatory bias against candidates based on a number of factors including ethnicity, religion and socioeconomic lines. This results in a problematic lack of diversity.

Hiring for cultural fit doesn’t mean hiring people who are all the same.

The cultural values and behaviours that drive an organization can and should be reflected in a varied and distinct workforce. When you have a defined values-driven culture, you can bring people with diverse skillsets and backgrounds together through a sense of shared purpose. This is a pragmatic and human centric approach to building high performing and inclusive teams – in fact, within organizations that value innovation and creativity, more diverse teams outperform less diverse ones. A lack of diversity in terms of thought or backgrounds can lead to teams that are overconfident, make poor ethical decisions and are less successful. This is why recruiting great people is such an essential part of running great businesses.

Hiring for cultural fit is incredibly powerful when it’s done right.

So how is that accomplished? When an organization has a well-defined culture and values it needs to implement fair and open assessments which allow candidates to reveal their values and beliefs. There are myriad ways we reveal who we are, but in many ways humans are products of their past experiences – both professional and personal. Organizations that have defined their company’s culture can use their values as a starting point. As an example, if innovation is one of your organization’s cultural hallmarks, ensuring that potential candidates are creative and have a track record of thriving in similarly innovative environments will be imperative. This is a key signal of culture fit. This doesn’t mean that only people who come from creative agencies, have an arts degree or have one particular set of experiences are innovative. The best hiring managers know that creativity and innovation could just as easily be found in a candidate with a corporate background who has spent the last two years working at a financial institute. However, you need to have a process that uncovers these key competencies. Does your interview ask questions that are tied to these values? Do your assessments of past work or references identify how your candidates have acted upon their values in the past?

Something else to be mindful of is that experiences outside of work, including education, volunteering and hobbies can be relevant to career opportunities – we need to recognize that we continue to learn new skills beyond our time spent at work. Through practical skills tests, reviews of past work and genuine conversation, employers can uncover defining traits of candidates and determine if they align with their organizations. When this is achieved, you can form a genuine connection between employee and employer. This connection is when cultural fit becomes a powerful means on which to assess talent, and that connection is one that organizations should aspire to form through progressive hiring methods.