January 29, 2018 – Human resources executives and recruiters have been using the term “cultural fit” – generally defined as the ability of an employee to fit with the core beliefs, attitudes and behaviors that make up an organization – for a decade or two.
The popularity of the concept has ebbed and flowed, but as an HR professional who works extensively on executive searches, J. James O’Malley, a partner at TalentRISE, says he has seldom had a week go by in which the topic of cultural fit fails to come up. At times, it’s thrown around relatively casually, without much consideration for its implications, he says, like when a hiring manager deciding between two equally qualified candidates selects the one that’s a “better fit” often based on instinct.
“For this reason alone, it’s my view that we need to rethink cultural fit because hiring for fit is more of a myth than a reality, and it may even be disadvantageous to your organization,” said Mr. O’Malley. “It’s not that I think cultural fit is entirely unimportant. But I do seriously question the feasibility of hiring for fit in an imperfect world.”
Mr. O’Malley, who joined TalentRISE in 2012 as a partner, has spent 25 years on both sides of the table, developing HR and talent solutions to align leadership, talent, and business needs.
Difficult to Define
For starters, he explained, defining a single corporate culture is difficult. Within one organization, culture may vary widely from location to location and even from department to department, depending on that function’s utility to the company as a whole. “Think about your own organization, for instance,” said Mr. O’Malley. “Salespeople and individual contributors, on the one hand, are typically rewarded based on individual goals. On the other, internal corporate departments are often rewarded based on how well they collaborate to run the inner workings of your company. The cultures within those two job groups – within the same business – may be diametrically opposed, as they probably need to be.”
Secondly, corporate culture is often aspirational, rather than a reflection of current reality. “Just pick any large corporation and take a look at the way culture is described on the website’s pages devoted to careers and job openings,” said Mr. O’Malley. “Then, ask a friend who works there what it’s really like. Or check out some of the sites such as vault.com for insider reviews. Does what the company describes as its culture and reality align?”
There are exceptions, of course. Many companies such as Zappos, which seek to attract a younger workforce, lead with well-defined cultures and are able to attract a very specific type of candidate as a result, said Mr. O’Malley. But, even within those companies, it is possible to experience cultural chasms between the technology team and the business side.
Third, it is an imperfect world. “There is, to the best of my knowledge, no one-size fits all verifiable assessment or screening methodology that accurately measures or predicts cultural fit,” said Mr. O’Malley. “Nor is there a foolproof set of interview questions to uncover cultural fit with any degree of predictability. Of course, there are certain behavioral interview questions you can ask to evaluate whether the individual is likely to be a fit.”
Focus on Track Record
Interview questions should center on the candidate’s track record. By asking “What’s worked for you in the past,” hiring managers will get a good sense of the type of environment in which that individual will thrive, said Mr. O’Malley. By asking situational questions, such as, “What type of environment are you most comfortable working in?” or “If you got to pick your next boss, what would he or she be like?, one will learn a lot about the individual’s ability to fit in. “Another great way to gauge fit is to watch the person interact with potential future colleagues as they walk around the office and/or go to lunch with them,” said Mr. O’Malley. “Better yet, have them stay for a full day.”
Fourth, hiring for cultural fit can lead to a lack of diversity. This can make one’s organization vulnerable to legal action for perceived or real discriminatory practices. It can also impact the company’s ability to innovate and thrive in changing times. “If, for instance, your business needs more disruptive thinking in order to succeed, hiring for cultural fit can perpetuate a ‘groupthink’ mentality and inhibit the hiring of innovators,” said Mr. O’Malley.
Cultural fit is not achieved by hiring the same type of people. Mr. O’Malley cited a recent article in the Harvard Business Review which stated that those who have a deep-seated belief in the value of collaborative work will be a stronger cultural fit in an organization in which collaboration is a key value than those who are more comfortable as individual contributors. “This doesn’t mean that only people who come from one particular background or have one particular set of experiences are collaborative,” the article said. “A deep-rooted belief in collaboration could just as easily be found in a candidate with a corporate background as a candidate who has worked in the nonprofit sector or a candidate who has spent most of her career in the military.”
So it is that many have begun to discard the term “cultural fit” altogether. “Facebook, for one, in an effort to become more diverse, has stopped using the term throughout the interview process and hiring managers are required to participate in a ‘managing unconscious bias’ training program,” said Mr. O’Malley.
Many HR practices can use some updating. Some are tactical, such as upgrading technology or fine-tuning our use of social media to attract better candidates, said Mr. O’Malley. Others are mandatory, to stay in compliance with the law. “Just as importantly, we also need to periodically assess whether the common tenets and beliefs we use as guideposts are still workable,” he said. “Cultural fit is one of those concepts that every organization needs to examine periodically and, in light of the considerations outlined above, make their own determination whether it is still relevant and beneficial.”