“The biggest problem is that while we invoke cultural fit as a reason to hire someone, it is far more common to use it to not hire someone.“ Katherine Klein
Is culture fit as important as we seem to think? A casual Google search brings up hundreds of articles espousing the benefits of culture fit and the need for candidates to fit that culture. People we hire that fit the culture are supposedly more productive and stay longer.
What research supports this and more significantly, what definition of cultural fit are we using?
The research is mostly anecdotal and not backed up with hard data. Data is hard to get because the definitions of culture and cultural fit are vague and inconsistent from company to company and there are sub-cultures within organizations that may be more important than the overall company culture. Articles and videos explain how those who fit a corporate culture are more productive and stay longer than those who do not. However, we do not know what definition was used to determine their fit. How did they compare these “good fit” people to the “bad fit” ones? How did the bad fit people get hired if they are screening for fit? There are too many unknowns to make the conclusions believable.
Also, defining culture is not as simple as it seems. Many corporations have a set of values which they espouse, and the belief is that these values create the culture. Therefore, the best candidates are those who are aligned with those values. But in reality, most organizations do not practice the values they espouse, and individual functions and departments within an organization may have even different values. Culture is far more than values. It is also the way people make decisions, the way people communicate, the habits and ways of thinking that have evolved.
Ed Schein, a professor at MIT, was a pioneer in creating an academic understanding of corporate culture and wrote one of the first books about it.
He defines culture as the accumulated learning of a person’s background, country, company, workgroup, and occupation. Corporate values are most importantly interpreted by how people act and how they get work done. Values vary from department to department and between professions. Finance people often have a different culture than engineers, for example.
It is not possible to have a straightforward definition of culture and then use it to screen candidates. Culture and cultural fit are too complex to be defined well or unearthed in an interview or through a test.
I am concerned that recruiters and hiring managers are using a simplistic definition of corporate culture and cultural fit to reinforce their own biases. Hiring managers, recruiters, and senior leaders have stereotypes about what makes a good candidate. They have beliefs about cultural background, education levels, schools people attended, grades achieved, and activities participated in. They may favor people from one organization over another.
At best, we pick out those few indicators that align with those that we already believe are important. When we say a candidate is not a fit, it is often a thinly disguised code for not hiring someone who does not fit our own bias.
By rejecting people who are different, or who do not think the same as we do, we run the danger of reducing the diversity of thought that creates change and drives innovation. We know that without diverse ideas and people who challenge the status quo organizations rarely are successful in navigating the uncertain future.
There are other questions as well about cultural fit. For example, how important is culture fit when hiring remote workers or workers in different countries? Is it important that temporary workers fit the culture?
Wouldn’t it perhaps be better to focus on finding people whose motivation, interests, and skills are a good match for the position offered and forget this pseudo-psychology?