Wednesday, April 24, 2013


After addressing this issue for the better part of two decades and reading numerous recent posts and threads (ad nauseam) on the topic it appears obvious that few people really know what Cultural Fit is within its business context.  It sounds to many like so much esoteric nonsense and sometimes that’s the way the government sees it.  That’s probably the way you should look at it as well… at least within the window of discrimination (race, religion, sex, age, etc.) and the ultimate well-being of your company and your clients.

Now does this mean that you’re going to go out and deliberately hire a square peg for that round hole?  We hope not.  What this does mean is that you are going to write air tight position descriptions that identify legitimate requirements (Bona Fide Occupational Qualifications - BFOQ) for the position (including your prevailing management style) and hold your candidates to that standard. That effort should include training your recruiters, hiring managers and first line supervisors to a high level of competency on what they can and cannot do and that means not injecting their personal bias into that process.  Therein lies your key.  We are assured that Human Resources already embraces a working knowledge of Best Practices when it comes to Recruiting and the potential for discrimination in a skewed employment function.

First line supervisors and hiring managers are where the rubber meets the road for any company and those less seasoned and trained are where many employment problems emanate.  Many of that ilk are disposed to entertain and hire those who seemingly share their interests and values or at the outside eliminate those they feel may ultimately pose a threat to their domain – that old territorial imperative thing. Needless to say, these have little to do with, “cultural fit.” 

The question then begs - are hiring managers looking for a Friend or as Lauren Rivera, Assistant Professor of Management at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management offered, “a romantic partner” or optimally - the best qualified candidate for your position? A recent employment study validated our observations by reflecting that a majority of the hiring managers surveyed ranked cultural fit (CF) and specifically their definition of CF as, “the similarity to existing employees' backgrounds, hobbies, and presentation” as the most important measure of a candidate’s worthiness during the job interview (Yikes!*).

Well, that’s not the real definition of cultural fit which as aptly defined by HR Consultant Susan Heathfield of is the, “Culture, the environment you have created for employees in your workplace, is made up of the values, beliefs, underlying assumptions, attitudes, and behaviors shared by a group of people.” We agree but most importantly it’s also how companies deliver their product and accomplish tasks – how they collaborate/work together and demonstrate the core values of their company in order to achieve their mission. So, within the context of the candidate, cultural fit is the perception of their ability to comfortably and effectively work in an environment that is compatible with their own beliefs, values and work ethic.

As an indicator of the prevailing mindset, a recent survey published in Forbes indicates that in an effort to increase their employee retention numbers, 88% of surveyed employers are looking for cultural fit over skills in their next hire (Yikes!*).  So, if a lot of their Associates like football then better not hire someone who shuns athletics in favor of the local ballet.  Yes, that’s really happened. It now just seems a secondary consideration whether the candidate can perform in the applied position.

There are so called management consultants and business folks on the World Wide Web advising that while employers should always look for employees with a high degree of competence, they should always choose cultural fit over competence when they have to make a choice?  We ask, why put yourself in a position where you are required to make that choice and potentially compromise your company?  We also advise that cultural fit should never trump competence as a factor in any employment decision. Why fill up your ranks with same sign, same dress, same everything and cut yourself off from those could/would evolve your company and carry you forward as business needs require? Now, while you may identify several equally qualified candidates in terms of competencies, an estimation of cultural fit may be the tipping point for your ultimate selection. We would also offer that companies always be sensitive to any potential discrimination issues.

In a same song, different verse perspective we are reminded of companies and particularly one that used a personality test – ones like Myers-Briggs, Bigby-Havis, Hogan Personality Inventory (HPI), Keirsey Temperament Sorter (KTS), Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI-2 post offer only), etc. as valid predictors of job performance and therefore a major part of the employment process. Understanding the potential fallacy of those tests the company initially relegated them to a seat (one vote) at the decision making table. Those tests, however, ended up dominating the entire process and mostly were the ultimate factor in employment decisions. In all fairness we add that the consulting company was disappointed and questioned that approach.

These tests are not only extraordinarily expensive, they are time consuming and with scheduling, travel, housing and other issues adding substantial time to the all-important time to fill (TTF) metric. A seemingly routine requisition that should have taken 30-45 days on average to fill now took twice as long.  Most HR Managers we know question whether these personality tests actually communicate anything useful about how future employees might perform on the job. We feel that a comprehensive background investigation and drug screen coupled with a sophisticated interactive, behavioral interview process by well-trained hiring managers who understand the job and their company’s culture and mission, have proved a much more effective mechanism.

While we somewhat digress we wanted to make the point that hiring managers, especially those who don’t know or understand what cultural fit really is, who hang onto this criterion to the exclusion of other more relevant standards, aren’t doing themselves or their companies any favors.  As alluded to previously, we also wonder if these hiring managers have any clue about the potential for discrimination and any disparate impact issues.

The bottom line is that cultural fit can be both – Nonsense or a BFOQ.  A candidate who embraces and demonstrates a management style and work practices not compatible with your company could be a legitimate factor when considering that individual’s suitability for a position.  For example, a candidate who has demonstrated preference for an independent, freewheeling entrepreneurial style vs. a business culture that values and embraces a more directed team approach – one more highly regimented and controlled - may not be the best fit for that company. If you are dealing with an enlightened candidate they would consider this information highly relevant as well.

However, the hiring manager that eliminates individuals who may not conform to all their cultural norms (or personal tastes) though demonstrate all the key competencies they are seeking, are probably missing the boat. Yes, it can be a delicate balancing act.  Don’t overlook those capable and qualified candidates who can consistently “think outside the box” and forward your agenda/mission. That rationale as one respondent opined, “Doesn’t leave the team/organization open to diversity and diversity can generate significantly greater results.” We agree. Companies that select employees via a cookie cutter model will be putting all their eggs in one basket (like the canary in the mirror) and predictably may end up with folks that all think and act alike.  That usually spells disaster or at least stagnation for companies operating in a 21st century business climate which will probably require the capacity to quickly change direction – and not end up like so many lemmings hurling themselves over the precipice.

So, just because a candidate is “different” doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t be a good fit for your company. We advise that cultural fit should never trump competence as a factor in any employment decision but can be, “one seat at the table.” Companies need to insure that their recruiters and hiring managers understand all the relevant operational details of their company’s policies and employment process including the significance of cultural fit in any decision.  Likewise those managers need to be monitored just to make sure that they aren’t hiring someone just because they drink the same beer…


Ned Buxton

* Yikes! equals astonishment, surprise, alarm and then fear - in that order.  

PS - Please note that this piece like all previously offered posts is not intended to be construed as legal advice, rather for informational purposes only and reflects the opinions of this writer based on his business experience. Please contact your Human Resources Department or employment attorney with respect to any particular issue or problem. NB

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