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Is Hiring for Cultural Fit Holding You Back?

When I am retained by a new client, one of the first areas of dialogue that takes priority is a conversation about culture. As a seasoned recruiter, I understand that cultural fit is generally defined as the ability of an employee to fit with the core beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors that make up an organization. A good search firm will help clients find a new employee who can perform the work of the position and meet expectations within the context of organizational culture. The popularity of the “fit” concept has ebbed and flowed, but I do get concerned that it is thrown around relatively casually, often without much consideration for its implications. Deciding a hiring choice between two equally qualified candidates because someone is a “better fit” may not ever get an organization to the finish line if there is interest in changing things up or moving the paradigm around what makes the organization good or even great.

Corporate culture is often aspirational, rather than a reflection of current reality. Pick any large corporation and take a look at the way the culture is described on the website’s pages devoted to careers and job openings. Then, ask a friend who works there what it’s really like. Does the reality align with what the company describes as its culture? Additionally, I believe that defining a unified corporate culture is difficult. Within one organization, culture may vary widely from location to location and even from department to department, depending on that function’s utility to the company as a whole. What I know about business today tells me that there are exceptions. Many companies, such as Zappos (one of my personal favorites!), that seek to appeal to a younger workforce lead with well-defined cultures and are able to attract a very specific type of candidate as a result. But, even within those companies, it is possible to experience cultural chasms between the technology team and the sales side, for example.

I remember advising a client recently that fit cannot be assessed by connecting dots that really should not be connected. Just last week, I read an article supporting this very concept in the Harvard Business Review that stated that those who have a deep-seated belief in the value of collaborative work will be a stronger cultural fit in an organization for which collaboration is a key value than those who are more comfortable as individual contributors. “This doesn’t mean that only people who come from one particular background or have one particular set of experiences are collaborative,” the article said. “A deep-rooted belief in collaboration could just as easily be found in a candidate with a corporate background as a candidate who has worked in the nonprofit sector or a candidate who has spent most of her career in the military.”

For organizations willing and ready to take a look at this more closely, I recommend you focus on a candidate’s track record, rather than this ubiquitous notion of “cultural fit.” Interview questions should center on the candidate’s demonstrated experience, or what they have actually done in prior positions. By asking questions such as “What specifically has worked for you in the past,” you will start to get a good sense of the type of environment in which that individual will thrive. Another great way to gauge if someone will be effective is to watch the person interact with potential future colleagues as they walk around the office and/or go to lunch with them. Oftentimes, the most informal settings give us the most valuable data.

We all know that the world we live in is imperfect and not one size fits all when it comes to figuring out how to assess fit to your specific culture. I welcome your questions or ideas about how to sharpen the discourse on this complex (and interesting) topic!


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