Why hiring for “cultural fit” is usually a bad idea

Hiring for “cultural fit” has been a buzz word for the human resource and talent development field in recent years. Search for the term on Google and you’ll get more than 22 million results. If you follow this topic you’ll see that the concept appears to be widely accepted across many industries. The idea that sorting for compatibility with an existing workforce as a central element of recruiting and keeping great employees and as a prerequisite for building successful teams and thriving companies often goes unchallenged.

Let’s change that.

By one definition, cultural fit is the likelihood that a job candidate will be able to conform and adapt to the core values and collective behaviors that make up an organization. Aside from functional fit it is one of the criteria that HR departments consider when evaluating candidates for employment. While functional fit is about a candidate’s hard skills, like degrees, certifications, education, training, or work experience, cultural fit refers to soft skills like a person’s goals, their value systems, social compatibility. Recruiters often measure this with behavioral assessment tools and during interviews with candidates.

Here is where hiring for cultural fit can get messy: Is HR looking for new team members which will easily identify with the company’s mission and vision? Or are they looking for employees who behave in a uniform, mono-cultural way?

Keep in mind, in this context mono-cultural doesn’t necessarily refer to national culture or ethnicity. Most successful organizations today are becoming increasingly diverse in that respect. And research has shown that diversity makes companies more agile and responsive to the demands in a global economy.
To be clear, hiring people because they can identify with your company’s values is critical. Making sure that employees’ beliefs and behaviors are in alignment with your organization’s core values and company culture is important.
And hiring similar individuals with comparable personality profiles leads to an army of yes-people. How many of you would agree that if all your team members shared traits in terms of personality, attitudes, values & beliefs, thinking style, background, you would end up dealing with complacency, overconfidence, and a lack of creativity?

The danger of hiring for cultural fit is that companies do not create diversity – they create homogeneity. When they hire the same profile of people even though they might have very different backgrounds. Thus the company will appear diverse. An article in Harvard Business Review illustrates this issue and highlights two problems:

First, each unit within an organization could eventually become what I call a “personality silo.” This is a silo based on personality type rather than the business unit or the type of work it completes. This already happens to some extent – think about how people in your company talk about “the IT department,” or “the marketing people.” It’s not that uncommon for a team or department to have its own personality as a group. But in most cases, there are still individuals who are different and most people adapt to working in new units. If companies decide to select people scientifically by using sophisticated profiling techniques and algorithms, however, the tribe may close in itself, which might cause serious problems of horizontal coordination.

Sounds like high school – fitting in with a certain group, the “in crowd,” those who are “one of us.”  Or, if you prefer a comparison from the grown-up world, imagine the social dynamics of a country club.

The second obvious problem comes from the individuals who do not easily fit into any given prototype. These people used to be much valued in the twentieth century, since they could come up with new ideas or creative solutions to problems. As people are organized into neatly designed homogeneous groups, however, these quirky creators will no longer have a place, and organizations will miss out on their iconoclastic thinking. These people are often the ones who, because they don’t fit easily into any one group, serve as the “translators” between groups.

One could say, by going for cultural fit Apple would have never re-hired Steve Jobs.

The real benefit of diversity isn’t that companies can pride themselves on being inclusive. The real advantage is the creative friction teams develop when people from different backgrounds and with distinct opinions and worldviews work together. When dissimilar individuals need to solve problems together and when they have to move a project towards completion, we typically get conflict. Many organizations shy away from exactly that.
They view conflict as negative.

How would you feel about seeing conflict as energy which – when harnessed properly – will yield more efficient solutions, more creative results?
Too much effort, you say? Well, yes – if you want to be busy maintaining the status quo.
If you’d rather benefit from the true advantages of diversity, you’ll get comfortable managing diversity of thought.

Why not hire for cultural misfit?

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Comments 1

  1. If you assess culture fit throughout the recruiting process, you will hire professionals who will flourish in their new roles, drive long-term growth and success for your organization, and ultimately save you time and money.

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