Hiring for cultural fit: what does cultural fit really mean? The truth varies widely making it a risky criterion against which to make hiring decisions.
Cultural fit is defined as a synergy between the values, ethics and standards of acceptable behaviour between an employer and their employee (or potential new hire). This definition is then fraught with holes. What are the values, ethics and standards of acceptable behaviour of an organisation? Can they be articulated by employees, management or even the executive board? What do these attributes look like in company policies, processes and working practices? How do they shape people management, employee development and reward?
IS HIRING FOR CULTURAL FIT SOMETHING TO STRIVE FOR?
Considering the increasing overlap of sought-after talent across different market segments, the competition for specific skills will only increase. Finding a way to confidently select candidates with adjacent skills and the ability to develop into a role is imperative to any demand plan, if business critical vacancies are to be filled. Is that about cultural matching, or rather an assessment of aptitude and attitude?
Doing everything possible to remove potential barriers to application depends heavily on culture, with respect, tolerance and inclusivity being high on the list of essentials. Cultural fit is misplaced here too as it would include someone who blends well with a negative working environment, realising the risk of a poor line manager hiring someone just like themselves.
ALL WELCOME…BUT ARE SOME MORE WELCOME THAN OTHERS?
The fly in the ointment is bias. As individuals, most of us think we fit in with company culture, therefore if you are like me, you will fit too. Without addressing internal challenges first, a strategy of hiring for cultural fit can reduce diversity, sustain toxic behaviours, same-thinking and increased attrition – particularly early attrition.
Cultural alignment is integral to being an employer of choice across the candidate market of all age groups, but most vocalised by Gen Z applicants are looking for organisations that reflect their values and cultural profile. An article this month by ‘The Core Focus’ on LinkedIn listed the most important employer qualities sought by candidates and nine out of 10 things listed were cultural, including respect, trust, transparency, support and a clear sense of purpose. An article published by the Institute of Student Employers in January 2023 confirms that young talent is ‘looking for a good work culture, with values aligned closely to their own.’ Organisational culture does matter. But what does that mean?
As part of an effective internal and external Employer Value Proposition (EVP) a positive portrayal of culture is a differentiator in a competitive talent landscape. Going beyond Glassdoor reviews, employees and potential hires want to know what an organisation represents, what values it believes in, how environmentally responsible it is and whether it prioritises its people. It is a tall order. Organisations are being judged by information in the public domain; beyond the company website, it is news and annual reports, blogs, and marketing.
Attempts to create the external perception without creating the internal reality only increase brand damage and resulting attrition. Even with a great application experience and welcoming induction, cultural reality will emerge rapidly once work begins.
“The external perception without creating the internal reality only increases brand damage and resulting attrition.”
For those who recognise the importance of cultural identity as central to growth, and have invested in shaping and delivering a positive culture, the rewards in talent acquisition are substantial. Not only will they attract a more diverse range of skilled applicants, but they are less likely to lose the employees they already have. Only then is an organisation in a place to assess whether a potential candidate is aligned with the culture they have built. In fact, it then becomes essential to ensure that the attitudes, behaviour and values of new hires support and, ideally, enhance the working environment that has been built with such care.
Recognising and welcoming difference ensures cultural expansion and an internal evolution that mirrors external shifts in society. Apply this to protecting the environment, mental health awareness, gender equality; the parallels are clear. But difference can give rise to fear. This may sound dramatic, but there is emotional safety in the same – even if we know it is bad. Facing something we don’t understand can challenge the way in which managers manage and interact with their team, how work is done and perceptions or what sustains team cohesion. New means change and effort to find new ways; great for some, but difficult for others. Managers are human. Training and support are fundamental to building, sustaining and evolving organisational culture.
The most effective strategy to hire for ‘cultural add’ is management enablement. Training managers to work with difference, give recognition for all contributions, and build an environment of safety and inclusion, takes positive culture from aspirational to operational reality. Being given the tools to nurture and encourage those attributes that reflect cultural values and behaviours brings confidence and the skills necessary to build a great working environment and a team in which everyone knows their individual worth. Now the hiring manager has a great story to tell potential candidates, and one that will match the lived experience of a new joiner on day one.
“They attract a more diverse range of skilled applicants, but they are less likely to lose the employees they already have.”
Does all this mean that hiring ‘the same’ should be avoided? Truth is that we are all different. Seeing someone as the same is merely a by-product of our natural instinct to find a connection. When we find one trait in common, we unconsciously attach all our other traits to that person, which is likely to be untrue. The solution lies in the questions and assessments used to shape hiring decisions. If hiring for ‘cultural add’ is truly a priority, then measuring a candidate’s synergy with organisational culture requires more than subjective opinion. All the effort to shape the right culture and upskill management goes out the window if the decision comes down to gut feeling.
One person cannot make a positive working environment, but it only takes one person to disrupt it. Understanding the cultural contribution of an individual, whether opportunity or threat, is critical to sustain an environment in which people love to work.
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We reached out to our network of talent leaders and asked them what hiring for culture means to them and their organisations.
“At Omni and in the context of hiring for ourselves and also the consulting advice we give to organisations about hiring and selection, we don’t see it as ‘hiring for culture’ but more as ‘hiring to enhance culture’. During the pandemic, we really focussed on what the culture of Omni was and what that meant to us in how we attract, select and retain talent. One of the key things we identified was that, although we have strong values that underpin how we want to operate, we are at our best when we do not consider ourselves as a monoculture. Omni is made up of great people who are fantastic at what they do, but different people work in quite different ways, and we want to make sure that we don’t use ‘culture fit’ as an excuse for not hiring someone, just because they are a bit different, if they can bring something to us.” Louise Shaw, Managing Director, OMNI
“Our senior leadership team recognises the critical importance of culture as a strategic enabler for growth and performance. We view culture as our personality, made up from our purpose (enabling a zero carbon, lower cost energy future. Building a future that is positive for the climate, for nature and for people), our vision and strategy, our values and behaviours and our colleague experience. We are working to define our colleague experience framework, to span the key moments of impact across the candidate to colleague to alumni lifecycle (Join, Work, Live, Grow, Move, Leave, Sustain, Re-join), underpinned by our employee value proposition that will authentically communicate what we give our colleagues and expect to get back.” Simon Clements, Talent Director at Drax
“We first ensure that our culture is aligned to strategy. Then we hire to the culture that will deliver the ambition. Culture ultimately defines who we are, what we do and how we do it. Understanding the components of culture that support your ambition and methodically hiring against it are key.” Michael Stull, Senior Vice President, Talent Solutions ManpowerGroup UK