The truth about culture fit

Culture fit: the enemy of diversity; the path to conformity; the reason you didn’t offer that job. Right? Not so fast, writes Kyle Brykman

The truth about culture fit

It has become increasingly popular to demonise ‘culture fit’ and attribute bad recruitment experiences to it. However, most of these criticisms either misunderstand the term or are driven by vain attempts at non-conformity.

The truth about culture fit – based on hundreds of studies in academic journals – is that it predicts whether an applicant will accept a job offer, as well as their happiness and success when hired. Culture fit reduces turnover and increases employee and company performance. It has nothing to do with creating a workplace of like-minded people or obstructing diversity. So why have we veered so far from the truth?

Culture fit myths

The push against culture fit is driven by one persistent myth: culture fit erodes diversity. This logic suggests that hiring for culture fit creates homogenous workplaces filled with people who have the same personalities, attitudes, backgrounds, demographics, and so on.

Another criticism is that it obscures discriminatory hiring practices. Whether recruiters get along with candidates has nothing to do with company culture, nor does it predict candidates’ job potential. Nonetheless, such imprecise, discriminatory ‘gut’ hiring practices persist. These issues persist because we have confused ‘fitting in’ with ‘fitting the culture’. Addressing these myths requires an understanding of what culture fit really means.

What is culture fit?

Organisational culture reflects the shared basic assumptions, values and underlying beliefs that describe a workplace and shape employees’ attitudes and behaviours. It’s taught to newcomers as the proper way to behave and is maintained through rituals, stories, and how problems are solved. Cultures aren’t inherently good or bad – whether you love or hate your company’s culture largely depends on your values and preferences and whether they align with your company’s. That is, whether you are a cultural fit.

Culture fit describes the match between what employees want and what their company supplies in terms of core values, normative behaviours, fundamental needs, and other preferences. For example, employees who value collegiality and autonomy experience greater culture fit in organisations that are highly collaborative and provide substantial independence over work tasks.

Culture fit depends on candidates’ risk sensitivity, entrepreneurial spirit, rule orientation and desire for recognition, not whether they drink beer, love art or speak many languages. Culture fit has nothing to do with similarity of interests, personality, age, gender, ethnicity, education or upbringing, or with whether employees bring the same perspectives or ideas to the table. The latter is a cultural element. For instance, some cultures value openness and encourage employees to speak up about issues; others value discretion and discourage confrontation. Whether new ideas are brought to the table then does not depend on whether you’ve hired people who ‘think differently’, but whether your hires value open dialogue, which subsequently reinforces your culture.

That’s why hiring for culture fit works – it strengthens the internal culture. Strong cultures excel by creating shared expectations of how employees should interact and why leadership makes certain decisions. Hiring people who are ‘cultural complements’ only stands to weaken your culture and make organisational life unpredictable.

To remove bias and hire for culture fit, follow these simple steps:

1. Understand your culture. What are your values? How do employees interact? What are some implicit expectations? Solicit different perspectives and stick to behaviours and values that employees actually exhibit, rather than ideals.

2. Introduce standardised methods to assess and evaluate culture fit, and continually monitor your system for biases. Use straightforward questions and identify ideal response types.

3. Develop metrics, collect data, and benchmark changes on employee happiness, retention and performance.

Ultimately, the benefits of culture fit – increased happiness, commitment and performance – only materialise when we shift our focus from finding applicants who ‘fit in’ to applicants who fit our culture.

Kyle Brykman is co-founder and head of research at TalentFit and assistant professor of management at Odette School of Business. He researches employee voice, interpersonal team dynamics, and organisational culture.

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