What is “Cultural Fit”? Why Does It Matter?
In our personal lives, we tend to hang out with people who are similar to ourselves – people who share an interest in the same music, sports teams, or any number of activities that determine how we spend our leisure time.
The same goes for the world of work. Finding a company or a team who make or do things we enjoy doing can be a powerful factor in employee retention and productivity.
I’ve always been impressed by companies who have a strong sense of who they are and how they get work done. In fact some companies are so good at articulating the key elements in their “culture” that they can organize their candidate selection processes around a specific set of screening factors designed to identify “fit”. We’ve seen several ways companies select candidates for “fit”….
Some companies look for employees who have a shared passion for what the company does and why. For example, a company who provides services to the homeless often prefer employees who have some background or interest in social services. It just makes sense that employees with a passion for what a company does, will tend to contribute to that company at a level that isn’t likely to surface with employees who don’t attach themselves personally to their employer’s mission.
Other companies will look for employees with a common set of work experiences or education as a way to build up their competencies in key areas of their performance. When Amazon was in its early “go go” years, their customer service team asked us to find candidates with college degrees in English or literature given their need to hire “smart people” who could interact in relevant ways with their targeted customer base. It was a hiring strategy that clearly “made a difference” to Amazon’s customer service performance.
What is sometimes overlooked when talking about “cultural fit” are those qualities in employees that companies look for when they specifically want to define their culture based on a common set of values or how employees work together. Work preferences such as working alone or in teams, solving problems individually or as part of a collaborative process, working with a management style that is hierarchical rather than entrepreneurial, are all things that impact the employee’s experience of a job, team, or company work environment. When “cultural fit” references how well an employee’s behavior at work (i.e. work style) tends to match up with the way the team or organization operates, even things like a supervisor’s preference for a candidate who likes to work faster rather than slower can be considered a issue of “fit”.
Candidates whose work preferences and work style “fit” how the employer has organized their work and environment, become the employees who can adapt easily to situations they are likely to encounter on the job. Employees who are a good “fit” for their work environment, tend to be happier, more productive and less prone to leaving their jobs for “something better” than employees who are equally skilled, but less well matched.
We often see that “cultural fit” is a concept that is hard for employers to define but easy to see when it’s missing. For example, an employee who hates meetings and likes to solve problems “on their own” may not be a good cultural fit for a working environment where meetings and communal problem solving takes up a big chunk of each work day. This mismatch can create unrest quickly – “I just can’t deal with one more meeting!”
On the other hand, an employee who likes and has mastered the ability to work effectively in situations where work decisions are made collaboratively, will be much less effective in work environments where they are expected to solve problems “on their own”. “I had no idea you expected me to make that decision without consulting my team.”
Employees who are perfectionists and hate making errors, don’t always adapt well to a supervisor who favors getting a lot done each day over thoroughness or accuracy. “I just hate working under so much pressure that I make mistakes, but my boss doesn’t seem to mind.”
In recent years, the term “cultural fit” has come under attack because of perceived conflicts with competing concepts such as the need for more inclusion or diversity. Hiring managers looking to be more “diverse” have sometimes discounted efforts to select employees based on “fit” even while being willing to terminate an employee for reasons related to “fit”. In our view, a candidate selection processes that considers “fit” will continue to make sense, provided “fit” is clearly defined in terms of the behaviors that are found to be actually important to success. When “fit” looks like sameness in terms of racial, gender, religious or age similarities it does in fact tend to trump diversity and in the end gets in the way of the team’s effectiveness.
The good news is that “fit’ based on race, gender, age or religious similarities tend not to matter when employees share a common vision about how to work together.
At PACE we use a behavioral approach to assessing all kinds of “fit” including “cultural”. If we know, for example, that a client organizes their employees into teams and has frequent meetings with lots of opportunities to collaborate, we look for candidates who have experience in similar work settings. If we know a team relies heavily on quantitative measurement to evaluate their employee’s performance, we look for candidates who have experience with and a preference for metrics based performance reviews. If we know a manager values employees who are willing to identify and address interpersonal issues directly, we look for candidates who not only aren’t afraid of conflict but have learned how to deal with conflict in constructive ways. Considerations of race, age, sex, or religion have no place in those kinds of screenings for “fit.”
When a hiring manager incorrectly applies or confuses “cultural fit” with “sameness” – the same ideas, the same personality, or in the extreme, the same age, sex or ethnicity of a hiring manager or other team members – we caution them not just that they are putting themselves at risk for claims of discrimination, but the very real possibility that their search for sameness will create lower, not higher, levels of team performance.
When “cultural fit” isn’t about finding candidates who think or look “alike” but about finding candidates who can work together under a common framework of communications, work processes, and leadership norms, it is a concept that has multiple benefits for both the team and it’s team members.
We see the negative and distracting impact of employees who “don’t fit” from the stories of candidates who are leaving their jobs because of frequent clashes with their supervisors or teammates (the “culture”) over how best to work together.
- What are the “working together norms” on your team?
- If “cultural fit” is a matter of preferred patterns of “working together”, what behaviors will a new employee need to display in order to be effective on your team?
- What kind of behaviors will a new team member encounter from others on your team that will tend to motivate them to either embrace or pull away from the team? What is easy or difficult for some team members on your team?
- If “fit” isn’t about sameness, what elements of “fit” are important to your team?
Being able to articulate your team or company culture to a prospective employee and finding out if they are the right fit for what will become important to them about your culture, is a key element in an effective hiring success.
This article was written by Jeanne Knutzen, founder and CEO of PACE Staffing Network, a Northwest staffing company who has been placing employees in jobs based on the “right fit” for over 40 years.
The PACE Staffing Network has been providing recruiting and staffing support for Northwest employers for over 40 years. We’re part of that elite group of staffing companies who have been voted by our customers as being in the top 2% of the staffing industry, earning the BEST of STAFFING designation by independent industry surveyor, Inavero.
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