Not Like Us: The Misuse of Cultural Fit in Hiring Decisions
Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch
Culture eats strategy for lunch. This is accepted as a truism in business.
The power of culture to override even the best thought out strategies and goals is the subject of many books. Therefore, it is not surprising that management consultants, business leaders and human resources practitioners go to great lengths to foster and protect a winning culture. In Guess Who Doesn’t Fit In at Work, associate professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University, Lauren A. Rivera, states:
“One recent survey found that more than 80 percent of employers worldwide named cultural fit as a top hiring priority.”
In that same article, Rivera notes:
“[cultural fit] has shifted from systematic analysis of who will thrive in a given workplace to snap judgments by managers about who they’d rather hang out with.”
In sum, hiring managers mistake cultural fit for personal fit. This misuse of culture fit can lead to discriminatory and biased hiring decisions.
What is culture? In the Merriam-Webster dictionary, culture is “a way of thinking, behaving or working that exists in a place or organization.” In Dictionary.com, culture is defined as “the sum of attitudes, customs, and beliefs that distinguishes one group of people from another.” Sounds good, right? After all, why wouldn’t business leaders want the people they hire and retain to fit within the culture? If everyone gets in line with the thinking, behaving and ways of working of the majority, doesn’t that ensure competitive advantage? Well, not necessarily.
What’s Wrong with Cultural Fit?
Culture reflects the DNA of an organization. Hiring employees who understand and align with the culture can lead to increased productivity and profitability. However, misusing culture in talent decisions can lead to discrimination against individuals perceived to be different from the majority. The practice of using culture fit as a criterion in hiring or other talent decisions has come under fire. In the Forbes magazine article, “Is ‘Cultural Fit’ Just a New Way to Discriminate” contributor Erika Andersen acknowledges that some who have generally accepted cultural fit as a component in hiring employees are now pushing back. She referenced a Harvard Business Review article by Ron Friedman. Friedman asserts that instead of leading to greater productivity and profitability, hiring for cultural fit can lead to “complacency, overconfidence, and a lack of creativity, and that it can become an excuse for hiring to fulfill existing prejudices.”
What’s wrong with culture fit is that it’s nebulous, not widely understood nor consistently applied across an organization. When hiring managers use culture as a reason not to hire someone, it is not always clear what they are rejecting in the prospective employee.
If the company has done its due diligence to identify and validate its cultural qualities and values, leaders can more accurately and objectively assess if an individual is indeed aligned with the culture. However, I believe most companies lack a sophisticated and valid definition of their culture. In such case, assessing individuals for cultural fit is subject to the whims and inherent biases of the decision maker.
If you’ve heard a hiring manager say “he/she is not like us” or “I wouldn’t want to be stuck in an airport with that person,” the manager is misappropriating culture fit and making a decision based on personal preference. Culture fit is not personal fit.
Has “Fit” Gone Rogue?
Rivera stated, “…in many organizations, fit has gone rogue.” In interviewing 120 decision makers, she found they used subjective personal criteria rather than evaluating candidates’ abilities to be successful based on established organizational values. Instead, a candidate’s similarities with the decision maker’s college experiences, hobbies or lifestyle were deemed to be evidence of fit.
What Happened to Appreciating Differences?
What happened to an appreciation of differences? The misuse of culture fit to support values and preferences for conformity are counter to an expressed commitment to diversity and inclusion. The Scholar, John O. Ogbor (1988) found that corporate culture has been used as tool for suppressing diversity in the workplace. Andersen addressed this issue in the Forbes article. She talked about how the term “cultural fit” has taken on a negative connotation because it is suspected to be a deterrent to a company’s diversity efforts. Andersen stated:
“Some executives I’ve dealt with over the past few years have used the phrase ‘not a cultural fit”’in exactly this negative, let’s-maintain-the-status-quo way; to mean ‘that person is too black/female/old/young/non-degreed/linear/non-linear’…in other words, ‘that person is not enough like me.’”
In closing, cultural fit is not the problem. In fact, companies that take the time to establish and understand their culture can make decisions which lead to better alignment and success. It is the misuse of culture fit that can have a damaging effect on people and the company. Below are five questions you can ask to determine if your company is using culture fit appropriately to hire or make other talent decisions.
Five Questions to Evaluate the Proper Use of Culture Fit
- Has the organizational culture been defined and validated through data driven analysis?
- Is it clear how cultural fit drives better performance on company goals?
- Are decisions about a potential hire or employee based on their alignment with organizational values rather than with personal fit and similarities?
- Are structured interviews or surveys used to assess candidates fairly and consistently?
- Is the appreciation and value of diversity evident in talent decisions?
If you answered “no” or “not sure” to any of these questions, then it’s fair to say that your company may need to do some work on making the culture and company values more explicit and measurable before tossing that term around and using it to make hiring decisions. On the other hand, if you can say “yes” to all of the questions, then you can be more confident that when you use cultural fit as a component in the hiring process, you are making smarter hiring decisions that will benefit the prospective employee and the company.
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