Why Hiring for Cultural Fit is Ineffective

The buzzworthy phrase is often an excuse for homogeneity

Cultural fit is perhaps the buzziest of buzzworthy business phrases, with everyone from new startup leaders to veteran CEOs touting its virtues. On the surface, cultural fit seems harmless, even desirable. What executive doesn’t want to hire someone whose professional style aligns with their company’s unique culture and values? However, using cultural fit to assess talent and current employees can be tricky.

The risks of cultural fit

Sadly, cultural fit isn’t so much a revolutionary hiring approach as it is an excuse to keep hiring the same kinds of employees, be it hires from the same universities, same ethnic backgrounds, or same professional disciplines. Aligning with the existing culture is often misinterpreted as fitting in with the existing culture. Quite often, those in a position of power will greenlight candidates who look and sound like their friends, peers, or current employees. This leads not only to a lack of diversity in a company but also to a perpetuation of the very roadblocks and stereotypes that will keep it that way.

Additionally, there seems to be a rather superficial understanding of what culture actually means for a company. We constantly hear about startup offices that have ping pong tables in the game room, craft beers in the fridge, and bean bag chairs in the lounge area. This is what gets framed as culture — the different ways that employees like to have fun and relax. And if a diverse hire isn’t interested in these perks, they’re not a cultural fit. But culture isn’t really defined by the activities employees engage in during their breaks. It’s about how they work and solve problems.

Cultural fit is about sharing enthusiasm for the company’s mission. It’s about embracing the company’s approach to collaboration and understanding how the company works through its decision-making. Let’s say a company prefers to use Slack over more traditional emails, in an effort to save time and streamline communication. An employee who’s a cultural fit will understand the why’s behind this and practice this communication style. They may not like craft beer, but they understand how the company does its work and they’re a willing, active, and productive participant.

Despite cultural fit’s intended meaning, there’s still a fluid (read: vague) interpretation across many companies and being rejected or fired from a job for cultural fit reasons can be demotivating. This is especially true for diverse hires who don’t have much in common with the rest of the company’s workforce. They might connect their dismissal to bias versus cultural fit, and in many cases, they’re right.

Avoiding cultural fit pitfalls

There are a few ways to avoid the ambiguity and discomfort that results from focusing on cultural fit.

· Change your mindset: Instead of thinking about how a person fits into your culture, consider what they’ll add to it. What can a potential hire bring to the organization that you’re missing? Are you filling your company’s needs?

· Define success: There should be clear metrics for success. So, regardless of an employee’s background, they’re being held to the same standards as everyone else.

· Expand your process: Make sure that diverse employees (of different backgrounds, leadership levels, and years of experience) are involved in the hiring process.

· Be consistent: Make sure you ask the same questions in your interviews. You should also evaluate candidates and employees using standardized criteria.

· Elevate the conversation: As a talent acquisition professional, when I am approached with one of my candidate’s not being a fit, I ask what essential skills were they missing, taking the conversation back to competencies.

The mindset should always be on innovation and a growth mindset. Hiring for a cultural contribution or add is about hiring people who can serve the company’s mission, live by its values, and deliver results.

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Founder/Principal of Diversity Forward Talent Solutions and OutNSocial