Recruiters have found another lazy hiring metric to reject candidates without giving constructive feedback for future interviews. Cultural fit has become a reason for rejection that is near indisputable to the candidate, as it is subjective with little room for debate.
What is cultural fit?
Cultural fit is when candidates reflect exiting values, norms, and behaviours of the team or organisation. It makes sense. Culture largely defines employees’ experiences within an organisation and therefore we should recruit people who “fit” the culture. It sounds easy, right?
As someone who is continuously studying and observing culture, I admit that culture is very imprecise and inherently tricky to measure. Existing methods for measuring culture are lengthy and complex. Organisational culture, just like the employees working in the organisation is constantly evolving. Culture is never static. So, hiring for an evolving feature without considering its future adaptability is a futile recruitment metric.
The other part of the metric is, the “fit”. What do recruiters mean by the fit? Is it about supplementary or complementary fit? How does the fit gel with the different definitions of organisational culture and individual personalities? The reality, however, is absurd and the definition of cultural fit has taken on a life of its own, covering anything indirectly related to shared beliefs, values and behaviours. It has become an ambiguous term and in doing so, turned into a platitude devoid of meaning or substance.
One also needs to keep in mind that, a team or organisational norms can also be toxic habits. Culture can also mean intolerable behaviours responded to with a shrug of the shoulders in any social group. This can take form of bullying employees into increased sales by shaming individuals who have not achieved the monthly targets or by misogynists who get away with misconduct simply because “they are brilliant at what they do, and women are just weak!”
A certain type of behaviour becomes the norm if it is tolerated long enough.
What cultural fit should and should not refer to
The value of “culture fit” as a job requirement has been debated for a long time. The caution against recruiting for culture fit to discriminate against people with different personalities exist alongside beliefs in culture fit as the most important factor to consider. After all, one can teach skills, but aptitude or attitude cannot be taught. Job interviews are about more than checking experience, skills and qualifications. They are also compatibility assessments of whether the candidate fits the role, will work well with colleagues, and share the organisation’s values.
The problem is that too often, these assessments are subjective – and it is common knowledge that people are biased in favour of people who are familiar to them. “Familiar” can mean anything from similar personalities and social preferences to physical attributes. This is called the homophily principle in sociology whereby similarity breeds connection in relations including friendship, marriage, work and other types of relationships.
There is increasing evidence that many organisations do not handle the idea of culture fit responsibly. In the book Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs, Lauren Rivera highlights findings from 120 interviews with decisionmakers at elite financial, legal, and consulting firms. While 82 percent of managers said fit is one of the most important elements they look for, only half had a clear idea of their organisational culture. Only one third said their organisation had clear tools for measuring fit during the recruitment process. Rivera further reveals that across these different industries, a disproportionate amount of focus is placed on culture fit in the recruitment process. In law firms over 70% of decisionmakers surveyed stated that “fit” was the most important criterion. This may not necessarily be a problem, except for the fact that findings detailed throughout the book indicate that “fit” often takes the form of recruiting people who are similar to the interviewer in terms of clubs participated in, schools attended, etc. As it turns out, the current phenomenon of culture fit has largely replaced an old, yet oddly familiar idea of hiring on likability.
Often, hiring people who are similar to the recruiter, can lead to a homogeneous culture - people with similar backgrounds who think and act in similar ways. When interviewers go in looking for culture fit, they often end up weeding out diversity of background and diversity of thought.
Elements to keep in mind when recruiting for cultural fit
Employers play a vital role in perpetuating a strong culture, which sets the context for everything an organisation does. Leaders need to set and continuously monitor the standard of behaviour and civility expected as the organisation grows.
2. Why, How and What
Leaders need to make it clear WHY they are in business, WHAT the values are and HOW they ladder up to the business strategy. Recruiting team need to define and articulate the organisation’s operating cultural norms before measuring candidates’ culture fit. They need to be able to identify their organisational values, goals, and practices to weave this understanding into the recruitment process. This implies being explicit about the assessment of WHY candidates may want to work for your organisation. For example, if a strong sense of collaboration is one of your organisation’s cultural hallmarks, making sure that potential candidates are collaborative with a track record of thriving in similarly collaborative environments will be imperative. This would be a key signal of cultural fit.
3. Consistency and standardisation
Writing job descriptions that clearly distinguish key qualities and attributes for the role and using standardised scorecards to evaluate candidates are key. Putting a system around the organisation’s recruitment process helps to eliminate human bias and presents an equal chance for everyone.
4. Challenge gut instinct or bias
You may still find that recruiting managers continue to rely on gut feelings about candidates during the interview process. When that happens, challenge it. Dig deeper and ask for the facts. What did you see? What did you hear? Job descriptions and your scorecards exist to clarify outcomes of an interview. The gut is biased and hence recruitment should be based on facts.
5. Cultural adaptability
Consider the candidate’s ability to learn and heed to organisational cultural norms as they change over time. Employees who can quickly adapt to cultural norms as they changed over time are more successful than employees who exhibit a high cultural fit during recruitment. These cultural “adapters” are better placed to maintain fit when cultural norms change or evolve, which is common in organisations operating in fast-moving and dynamic environments.
Looking for desirable attributes from the candidate’s previous experience is vital. Those are attributes that can and do cross a wide range of demographics and types of people. Fit does not mean people who share the recruiter’s interests, identities, or personality traits. Cultural fit is about finding someone who shares the organisational values and has the right skills and experience required for the job.
Faith Kayiwa Nababi is a Leadership Consultant and Coach at Tailormade Consultancy, a global service agency that empowers executives to make the best strategic decisions; create value and purpose for the people they lead; and catalyse conscious change.