Cultural fit is a concept that can be hard to define, but everyone knows when it is missing. Imagine a company founder who believes that an open office plan and team projects promote creativity and progress, but whose employees are overwhelming introverts. Or think about the ambitious employee stuck in an organization that offers no training, tuition reimbursement or room for advancement.
At its core, cultural fit means that employees' beliefs and behaviors are in alignment with their employer's core values and company culture.
"If we learned anything from the so-called 'best practices' of the Industrial Age, we learned that we need to hire people who genuinely care about the people they work with and for and not hire those who show up to work every day just to collect a paycheck," said Mark Babbitt, founder and CEO of YouTern, a company that helps interns with their futures. "Employers simply can’t take a chance on someone who won’t mesh well with the existing team, doesn’t share common goals with their colleagues, and are not aligned with the mission of the company."
Many employers understand the importance of hiring for cultural fit, and research shows that people who fit well into their companies express greater job satisfaction, perform better and are more likely to remain with the same organization for a longer period.
"We can teach someone to do a job. We can't teach someone to love the way we operate," said Lauren Kolbe, founder of Kolbeco, a brand media agency. "An employee who is not aligned with the culture and is not committed to living it can wreak havoc pretty quickly, even if they bring a great deal of skill and experience to their craft."
Hiring the right candidates
The first step in hiring for cultural fit is to be able to articulate what values, norms and practices define your business. As a hiring consultant for small businesses, Rebecca Barnes-Hogg of YOLO Insights asks her clients to list the top three or four behaviors critical for success in their organizations. "These behaviors are their company culture translated to daily operations," Barnes-Hogg said.
Once your company culture is defined, it should be clearly expressed in all of your communication materials, including your website and recruiting tools, especially job postings. Your job ads must reflect your business culture and connect back to your core values, said Ian Cluroe, director of global brand and marketing at Alexander Mann Solutions, which helps organizations around the world attract, engage and retain talent.
"You can do this by emphasizing some of the qualitative things you want in a candidate," Cluroe said. "So, in addition to looking for X years of experience, say that you're looking for someone who's innovative, entrepreneurial or customer-centric — whatever characteristics reflect your culture."
Any members of your organization involved in interviewing potential employees also must have a good grasp of your business culture and refer back to it throughout the hiring process, Cluroe added. It is not sufficient to ask candidates if they will fit into the corporate culture, because "a smart candidate will know what you want to hear and give you the right answer," he said.
"Many companies talk about their culture in glowing terms during the interview," Babbitt said. "In fact, the culture segment of the interview has become a large portion of the 'sales' process when speaking with top candidates."
The best candidates know this and are prepared with answers to the most common interview questions that take on the culture topic, Babbitt noted. "Unfortunately, that means both the interview questions and answers are both canned — perhaps even disingenuous," he said.
Instead of going down that path, Babbitt suggests taking the time to provide a look at your culture in real time. Walk the candidate around the office. Let them meet key team members. Show them where the real work happens. Then, when you’ve arrived back in the interview room, ask one question: “What were you thinking as we walked through the office today?”
"If you get a more specific response rather than a canned answer, then there’s a good chance you’ve found a culture fit," Babbitt said.
Additionally, employers can assess candidates for cultural fit by asking them to take personality tests like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and arranging for them to meet with team members from a range of levels across the organization.
However, employers should avoid confusing personal similarities with cultural fit, said Pavneet Uppal, a managing partner with the Phoenix office of Fisher & Phillips, a law firm that represents employers in labor and employment matters.
"When cultural fit is used to hire a homogenous workforce, the resulting lack of diversity will often manifest in poor creativity and undermine a company's competitiveness," Uppal said. "Focusing on hiring based on shared background or experiences may also lead to discriminatory practices."
Refusing to hire someone because of an alleged lack of cultural fit will not save an employer from legal liability. Asking candidates about personal issues — such as age, citizenship status, health, family history or ethnic background — is never justifiable on the basis of cultural fit, Uppal stressed.
The end goal is to identify and hire the very best candidates whose skills and attributes match the organization's core values. Cluroe said this objective is achievable when organizations have a "culture that's based on positive values that are open enough to enable a diverse selection of people to embody them in their own way."
"Don’t hire someone who claims to care about their work, career and industry. Hire that too-rare person whose passion has already been proven by their actions," Babbitt said.
Additional reporting by Paula Fernandes. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.