Cultural fit: Know what it really is, and don’t overuse it

by on August 11, 2015 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Cafe

Ah, cultural fit. That elusive grail of hiring. You know that if a candidate doesn’t fit in with your organization, the person is probably going to leave sooner than otherwise. And that’s a self-inflicted wound you’d like to avoid.

But what does “cultural fit” really mean, and is it as absolutely essential as everybody says?

Well, there’s evidence that some hiring managers don’t really understand the term and/or misuse it as a hiring criterion.

Getting comfy
In a study done by Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, researchers found that people who made hiring decisions often weren’t choosing applicants who fit the organization’s values, but rather applicants with whom they themselves were comfortable.

The study concluded: “Bonding over rowing college crew, getting certified in scuba, sipping single-malt Scotches in the Highlands or dining at Michelin-starred restaurants was evidence of fit; sharing a love of teamwork or a passion for pleasing clients was not.”

Wow. These decision makers interviewed as if they were screening candidates for membership in an exclusive country club, not a dynamic enterprise.

There are at least two huge problems with going about things this way:

1) It’s a recipe for hiring bias toward economically less-advantaged minorities, and
2) It leads to organizational inbreeding, which isn’t any better for an organization than for, say, a royal family.

Useful dissimilarities
As we said earlier, newcomers who stick out like a sore thumb are unlikely to stay, no matter how potentially valuable they might be. But just because a new hire is socially unlike the rest of the staff doesn’t mean the person won’t find a fit.

In fact, a study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin indicates that heterogeneous groups — where the members are not all substantially alike — make better decisions than homogenous ones – where the same social norms fit everybody like a glove.

The authors of the study, who are academics at Northwestern, Stanford and Brigham Young University, put it this way: “The mere presence of socially distinct newcomers and the social concerns their presence stimulates among old-timers motivates behavior that can convert affective pains into cognitive gains” – i.e., better brainstorming and problem-solving.

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How to interview for culture
To be sure, there is such a thing as culture, and it matters. So when interviewing applicants, seek to learn how well they match up with your organizational values. Depending on the kind of organization you are, these might include:

  • Being results-oriented
  • Paying attention to detail
  • Showing innovative thinking
  • Respecting people and diversity
  • Working effectively in teams
  • Focusing on customers

and so forth.

You might also pay attention to the emotional “temperature” of your organization – whether it’s okay to show overt emotions like joy, anger, affection and so forth. An applicant who flies in the face of an organization’s powerful, but tacit, emotional norms is likely to feel frustrated at every turn just for being him- or herself.

Source: Knowledge at Wharton,

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