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Culture fit – the new dirty word in hiring?

by Sirius People

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The concept of hiring for ‘culture fit’ is not only outdated, but it could also be holding you back, creating a corporate environment lacking in challenge and diversity.

Increasingly, forward-looking businesses are now reaping the rewards of turning culture fit on its head, challenging the now outdated approach with ‘culture add’, a hiring strategy which recognises the value of diversity and outside-the-box thinking and behaviour.

Going one step further, many dynamic and successful companies now embrace the concept of ‘cultural contribution’, to take their business in new directions.

It’s time to replace “Don’t rock the boat” with “Let’s see where we could go”.

What exactly is – or was – culture fit?

Cultural fit is a hiring procedure where a new employee, regardless of any other qualifications or experience, will fit seamlessly into the existing company culture. It could be because they have similar characteristics with existing employees (or the hiring manager), such as age, gender, personality, interests, outlook, ethnicity, sexual orientation, language abilities and education.

Of course, deliberate discrimination regarding many of these attributes is not merely unethical — it’s illegal. But, the bias may be unconscious on the part of the person doing the hiring. They hire someone not too different from themselves, or someone they might invite to their next barbecue. It’s what’s become known as the “beer test”.  

Recruiting for culture fit can have serious drawbacks

While it’s easy to see some obvious advantages in recruiting for culture fit – the possibility of easier onboarding, more cohesive teams and conflict minimisation – there’s a strong chance that it could lead to having your business operated by a squad of clones. They’re inherently incapable of conceiving new ideas and constitutionally resistant to change.

This doesn’t mean that the concept should be abandoned entirely. If your business model is based on providing out-of-normal-hours service, it may not make sense to recruit someone whose family commitments would regularly prevent them from fulfilling their duties. But it doesn’t mean you have to be staffed entirely by young singles. Empty-nesters, for example, would be equally capable of working flexible hours and would add heaps of experience to the team.

In fact, it’s dangerous to focus on how a candidate might fit if this means that you ignore what they might add. That’s why progressive organisations are moving on from culture fit, toward a ‘culture add’.

Culture add: Recruiting for diversity

Instead of hiring someone who will fit into your current company environment comfortably, why not search for individuals who will challenge your organisation’s outlook and foster innovation? Every individual has a unique life experience, specialised skill, communication style, perspective, and contrasting generational or gender viewpoint. Capitalise on that.

Diversity can also bring tangible rewards. A study by researchers from US universities concluded that an office with a 50/50 gender balance would be likely to see a 41% increase in revenue compared to an all-male or all-female workplace. Employee morale and satisfaction is also higher in gender diverse environments. Research by McKinsey & Company found similar results. Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians. And those demonstrating racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have higher financial returns.

But new employees need to thrive in a team or organisation in order to add real value. That’s the hitch. Without fitting into the company culture, there’s a higher chance for a lack of engagement and increased staff turnover. So, how can ‘fit’ and ‘add’ be combined?

Cultural contribution: Recruiting for values + variety

The solution is to redesign your hiring procedure to encourage and identify candidates who will be a cultural contributor. While sharing the core values and objectives of your enterprise (a concept subtly different from simple ‘culture fit’), they can bring something extra to the table. This could be a diversity in opinion, attitude, proficiency, skills or training.

The result should be that they and your existing workforce will be able to not only cooperate but also bounce ideas off each other. This will replace uniformity and stagnation with innovation and progress.  

Hiring managers will find it relatively easy to identify a candidate’s divergence from, and potential contribution to, their company’s personnel norm. Differences, by their very nature, stand out. But establishing whether this person shares your corporate values is trickier. For a start, you’ll need to be able to define what those corporate values are right now, and where you think they might be going. You can’t recruit individuals who will succeed in your environment if you don’t know exactly what that environment is.

Defining your current and future business culture

Your business culture is not necessarily identical to your workforce culture, although they feed into one another. You want your staff to reflect the company’s values, and so those responsible for hiring need a thorough knowledge of both the business and its employees.

Research by Deloitte indicates that very few organisations are effective at measuring and driving company culture: Only 12% of survey respondents believed that their organisations were excellent in this sphere.

Steps involved in defining  your business culture

Defining and building your business culture would involve the following steps:

  • Start at the top with a mission statement from senior management, a declaration of core values: Why the company exists, and what drives it forward.

  • Think about where the company is going, and how it’s going to get there.

  • Is the existing corporate structure appropriate? Will it allow employees to achieve corporate objectives?

  • How will the company will react to the changing needs of customers, employees and other stakeholders, and disruption in general?

  • Be open to changes or additions. Involve employees by asking for their input, and follow up by incorporating useful suggestions.

Culture is not static: It will change and evolve. This is why it’s important to hire individuals who will not only fit into your company culture but add to it.

Redesigning your hiring procedure to maximise the cultural contribution

With a clear idea of your company culture and the direction in which it is moving, you can restructure your recruitment process to ensure that future employees encourage development rather than stagnation. Here are some suggestions on how to achieve this:

  • Eradicate deliberate discrimination. The hiring procedures manual should contain a clear statement that conscious discrimination around gender, age, ethnicity and physical disability is unacceptable.

  • Eliminate unconscious bias. All managers involved in hiring should be trained to avoid unconscious positive or negative bias centred on personality, interests, outlook and perceived social class or educational background.

  • Engage managers fully. Ensure that anyone involved in recruiting has a deep understanding of the business and the problems it has to solve.

  • Be more adventurous about where you search for talent. This may mean deliberately looking for unconventional people who think outside the box.

  • Use inclusive language in job descriptions. Avoid over-emphasising required qualifications, and ditch terms like “ruthless” and “driven” in favour of “motivated” and “creative”.

  • Probe beneath the surface. Include interview questions that inquire into the candidate’s inherent abilities, purpose and potential, as well as their past achievements. This will extend the focus beyond cultural fit alone, by adding an understanding of their core values and purpose, regardless of surface appearances.

  • Discuss your business culture with the applicant. Can they describe the kind of culture or team in which they have flourished or an ideal one in which they would?

  • Take a critical look at your business structure. It may need to change to ensure that teams remain cohesive when people with a diverse approach are introduced.

  • Measure the effectiveness of your new program. Conduct an annual review of your new hiring process by assessing how new employees hired for cultural contribution are actually performing.

  • Treat your recruitment service provider as a business partner. They are vital contributors to the business and should have a thorough understanding of its values and needs.

Examples of a great cultural contribution hire

A company whose core business is civil engineering projects needs project managers with the skills to manage and coordinate each job from start to finish. It has typically recruited mature males with experience in heavy industry or construction work. But its projects often fall behind schedule, because its project managers are engineers more interested in technical details than keeping their eyes on the deadline. This company could recruit an event coordinator with transferable skills like organisational ability, attention to detail, and above all, commitment to a totally inflexible deadline. She might even be a woman, able to demonstrate both creativity and emotional investment in the end result: Better civil infrastructure.

A financial planning service provider, heavily populated by both men and women in suits, might want to expand its appeal to financially-challenged Millennials and Generation Z. They could hire a recent finance graduate more inclined to wear jeans to work and control his (or her) personal finances via a smartphone. This same individual will bring a fresh perspective to other team members, inspire them to adapt to new technology, and possibly challenge their prejudices. Alternatively, they could recruit a migrant from the Asia-Pacific region who is pursuing accounting qualifications part-time. They could help the company appreciate the specific financial problems applying to recent arrivals. The business might go on to develop niche markets in youth and migration.

A former Chief Talent Officer at Netflix describes how, when the company first began looking for Big Data experts, few people really knew what the term really meant so they couldn’t go looking for Big Data experience in resumes. Instead, they had to look at current employees of insurance and credit card companies. These were the people accustomed to handling masses of data, who could make an ideal cultural contribution to the direction in which Netflix was heading.

‘Culture fit’ has evolved into ‘cultural contribution’

The reality is that ‘culture fit’ had good intentions but unforeseen adverse results. Homogeneity can lead to staleness, making your team unfit for purpose and unable to cope with disruption. Time after time, research has proved that the varying perspectives exhibited by diverse teams lead to better decisions, increased innovation and improved revenue. But there’s no need to abandon the best elements of culture fit, provided it simply means alignment with company values and not merely the ‘personal fit’ exhibited by survivors of the beer test. Integrating ‘culture fit’ with ‘culture add’ produces the dynamic fusion that is ‘cultural contribution’.    

Establish your corporate culture and then restructure your recruitment process to include cultural contribution. This will allow you to identify and champion the talent that can both thrive in your current environment and take you in fresh and productive directions. Diego Rodriguez, Chief Product and Design Officer at Inuit, perhaps expressed it most succinctly when he said: “The future of your organisation is shaped by the people you hire today.”