Luck of the draw?

by HCA05 Aug 2009

A job applicant's suitability for a role relies on more than them having the necessary skill and experience to do the job. Employers are increasingly recognising the importance of selecting candidates who also fit the 'culture' of the organisation. When the estimated cost of a wrong selection decision can be as much as 150% of an employee's annual salary depending on the level of the role, most employers cannot afford to get it wrong.

Yet, assessing cultural fit is considerably more difficult than assessing the relevance of skills and experience. Not only does the employer need to have an accurate understanding of the culture of the organisation into which the new employee needs to fit, but they also need ways to obtain accurate insights into the candidate's personality and motivational needs - the personal attributes that most likely underpin cultural fit. It is the interaction between the two that will enable the employer to make accurate predictions about the candidate's suitability for the job and their likely tenure.

Fortunately, there are many tools and techniques available to employers to assist with the complex tasks of defining and analysing the organisational culture and assessing candidates for cultural fit. The challenge for managers and employers is to select the approach that is not only scientifically rigorous and therefore defensible and fair to candidates, but that also reflects the unique qualities of the organisation, the work that it does and business constraints such as budget. 

What is organisational culture?
Organisational culture is something that people can sense and talk about, but it is somewhat more difficult to accurately define and measure. In common language, organisational culture is often referred to as 'the way we do things around here'. It reflects the underlying values that are defined by management or, alternatively, that simply grow and exist by virtue of the kind of people that the organisation attracts and the expectations the organisation has of their performance. For example, if the core value is around 'quality customer service', the behaviours that will be expected and rewarded may include going out of one's way to rectify a customer problem or attending promptly to customer needs. These behaviours define the service aspect of the culture. Other values that define the culture may be ruthless competitiveness, leading innovation, team collaboration or environmental sustainability. The list goes on. Values underpin the organisational culture and provide the basis on which policies are developed, people are managed and rewarded, and services are structured. 

Cultural fit and employee selection
There is no doubt that cultural fit is certainly very important in pre-employment screening and selection. Employees whose needs and values are rewarded by the organisation are more likely to be satisfied will likely stay longer than those whose needs and values are not adequately rewarded (Edwards & Cable, 2009). 

Although there is a threshold beyond which poor fit with the culture could impact job satisfaction and tenure, employees and employers adapt and accommodate to a degree of mis-match (Theory of Work Adjustment, Dawis & Lofquist, 1984). So long as some of the employee's values are met, they may be willing to tolerate the failure of the organisation to reward or reinforce other values and needs. Conversely, some employers will tolerate unacceptable behaviours to a certain point, provided the employee is satisfying other needs of the organisation. For example, they may tolerate a disruptive employee if the employee also generates good income for the business. There is give and take in both directions, but there is also a threshold beyond which organisations and employees will decide to sever the relationship.

Assessing cultural fit
The assessment of cultural fit is two pronged. On the one hand, the values of the organisation need to be defined. Cultural values may be explicit in the vision and strategic direction of the organisation. The extent to which the organisation reflects the desired culture can be assessed using surveys that ask people about their experiences and observations. Culture, climate or staff surveys may be relevant depending on what is important and the focus of measurement. These surveys may be designed to measure the specific behaviours that the organisation wishes to develop and promote to reflect its values, or they may be available 'off the shelf'.

Having defined the behaviours that the organisation wishes to see in its people, an analysis of the behaviours that are relevant to the work group and the job is required. Most job analysis focuses on the tasks and competencies that are required in the job. There are also, however, personality-based job analyses which enable a close matching of the individual's personal preferences and style with the requirement for those preferences and personality features in the role. 

Having defined the organisational culture and the job-specific behaviours, the recruiting manager then needs to choose the selection methods that will be used to identify the person who will best 'fit' the culture and the job requirements. However, not all selection methods assess all cultural attributes or job requirements equally. For example, analytical and problem-solving abilities are best measured using cognitive ability tests, while the interview or behavioural simulations such as role-plays may give deeper insights into interpersonal behaviours. Furthermore, no combination of assessments will ever predict performance on the job with 100% accuracy. For these reasons, a combination of selection methods are required in most instances. Three selection methods that are very frequently used in selection in Australia are psychometric tests, behavioural interviews or assessment centres.

Psychometric tests
The term 'psychometric' simply means measurement of a psychological construct or attribute.  Psychometric tests have been subjected to a process of rigorous scientific development that enables the test user to show precisely how much or how little of the attribute a job applicant has compared with a relevant comparison group e.g. other graduates, other managers, other senior executives etc. A psychometric test can measure any psychological attribute such as cognitive skills, intelligence, aptitude, motivational needs, personality or values. The psychometric tests that are most commonly used in selection are cognitive ability tests, personality tests and motivational questionnaires.

a) Cognitive ability testing. Cognitive ability tests are considered to be one of the best single predictors of overall job performance (Schmidt & Hunter, 1998). These are problem-solving tests and typically cover verbal, numerical and abstract (spatial) abilities. Candidates are usually required to complete the test within a time limit. The results of cognitive testing provide insights into a job applicants likely speed of thinking and learning, efficiency of problem-solving, accuracy in complex decision-making, and ability to transfer knowledge from one problem to the next.

b) Personality profiling. There is now a vast body of research supporting the use of personality testing in selection. We know, for example, that there are some key personality attributes, namely conscientiousness and emotional stability, that predict effective performance across most jobs (Ones, Dilchert, Viswesvaran, & Judge, 2007). Furthermore, there is good evidence to support the use of measures of specific personality attributes that are required in the specific role (Barrick, Mount & Judge, 2001). For example, if the role requires someone who is outgoing and communicative, a good measure of these attributes can help an employer make a more accurate selection decision. 

Personality profiles are typically self-report assessments, that is, the candidate completes a questionnaire asking about their preferences or likely behaviours. The results of the assessment are compared with those of a relevant comparison group eg other graduates, other managers and professionals etc. The interpretation of personality tests needs to be guided by the requirements of the role. There is not one personality that fits all situations. 

c) Motivational profiling. Critical to the prediction of cultural fit is the assessment of the job applicant's motivational needs. A good match between the needs of the individual and the extent to which these are rewarded on the job can result in higher job satisfaction and tenure. Like personality profiling, motivational assessment is by self-report or completion of a questionnaire asking the candidate to state what motivates them. 

Values and motivational needs can change with experience and the circumstances in which people are placed. People may not necessarily be aware of their values and motivational needs until they are threatened. For example, most will act to protect their freedom or their personal property if freedom and personal property are valued. Similarly, in the work context, employees who value autonomy and independence may prefer to work with a manager who allows them the freedom to do things in their own way rather one who than micro-manages.

People are, however, very adaptable and can either tolerate environments which do not completely match their values or do not entirely satisfy their motivational needs.  We all have a threshold of tolerance, beyond which dissatisfaction sets in and leaving the workplace may be considered. For example, those with a high need for autonomy may put up with a micromanaging boss if other needs are well met e.g. good pay, interesting work tasks. Motivational needs can also vary across different age groups and for men and women.

There has been a lot of research examining values and needs at different life stages and, while there is a need for longitudinal research that tracks these changes, it does appear that different things are important to us at different stages in life. For example, younger Australian workers seem to value personal growth and career progression more than older workers, while older workers tend to have a greater need for autonomy and power (Stead, 2009). 

So, while there are some values and motivational needs that may be enduring throughout our lives, people are constantly re-evaluating their priorities and adapting themselves or their circumstances to ensure they fit within their tolerance threshold.

Behavioural interviewing

There is considerable research evidence supporting the notion that the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour and this is the premise on which the behavioural interview is based (Moscoso, 2000). The behavioural interview asks for examples of the candidate's past experience to demonstrate competence in those areas that are important in the target job. For example, if it is important for future employees to be able to manage difficult clients, the interviewer would ask the candidate to describe a time in which they had to manage a difficult situation with a client, what they did and what was the outcome.

Structured behavioural interviews are commonplace in many organisations and are supported by the considerable research evidence that show that this kind of interview is more likely to predict effective job performance than less structured interviews (a free ranging conversation with applicants) or hypothetical interviews (that ask "what would you do?" rather than "what have you done").

In addition to structuring the interview and using behavioural questioning, the skill of the interviewer also makes a difference. Because structured behavioural interviewing ensures that all applicants are treated in a consistent manner with the same questions and rating procedure, those who are not naturally good interviewers can very easily become good interviewers. It is only fair to candidates and critical to the quality of the selection decision that interviewers have the required expertise.

Assessment centres
The assessment centre uses multiple methods and trained observers to assess the attributes that are required on the job. They are typically used where there are many candidates for a number of roles such as in the recruitment of graduates, call centre employees, or pulling together a sales team. The kinds of assessment methods used in an assessment centre will vary according to the attributes required in the role but may include a combination of interviews, cognitive testing, personality profiling, and a variety of job simulations (eg team meetings, customer calls, negotiations, presentations, role plays or in-basket exercises). An assessment centre may go for anything from a few hours to a few days. 

Assessment centres are very resource intensive as they require a team of assessors who are trained to observe and rate the performance of applicants.  They can, however, be cost effective if there is adequate volume and very useful in high stakes selection contexts where it is particularly important that applicants feel that they have had the best opportunity to demonstrate their capabilities and the impact of making a wrong selection decision is grave.

There is no reason why cultural fit should be something at which recruiting managers guess.  There are many methods available to organisations to define and assess their culture and many more methods available to assess job candidates' potential to fit the culture.  The challenge for recruiting managers is to implement an approach to pre-employment screening and selection that is fair, rigorous, valid and cost effective.


Barrick, M.R., Mount, M.K. & Judge, T.A. (2001). Personality and performance at the beginning of the new millennium: What do we know and where do we go next? International Journal of Selection and Assessment. 9, 9-13.
Dawis, R. V., & Lofquist, L. H. (1984).  Psychological Theory of Work Adjustment:  An Individual Differences Model and Its Application.  Minneapolis: Uni. of Minnesota Press.
Edwards, J. R. & Cable, D. M. (2009).  The value of value congruence.  Journal of Applied Psychology, 94 (3), 654-677.
Moscoso, S. (2000). Selection interview: A review of validity evidence, adverse impact and applicant reactions. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 8 (4), 237-247.
Ones, D.S., Dilchert, S., Viswesvaran, C., & Judge, T.A. (2007).  In support of personality assessment in organisational settings.  Personnel Psychology, 60, 995-1027
Schmidt, F.L. & Hunter, J.E. (1998). The Validity and Utility of Selection Methods in Personal Psychology: Practical and Theoretical Implications of 85 Years of Research Findings. Psychological Bulletin. 124 (2), 262-274.
Stead, N. (2009).  The effect of age and gender on motivation to work.  Paper presented at the 8th Industrial and Organisational Psychology Conference, Manly, Australia.

About the author
Dr Elizabeth Allworth is director of Allworth Juniper Organisational Psychologists and a Member of the College of Organisational Psychologists, a college of the Australian Psychological Society