Why Hiring for Culture Fit Weakens Your Organization – And What to Look for Instead

by Danielle Gauthier

Posted June 16, 2021

‘Culture fit’ has long been a common term in the world of recruiting; when an organization seeks to assess a candidate’s culture fit, they are trying to evaluate whether their beliefs, ethics, and personality align with those of existing staff. However, while assessing culture fit may seem like a harmless practice, it can be damaging – not only to the candidates, but to the hiring organization, as well.

Hiring for culture fit can:

Prohibit a culture of diversity

Relying heavily on culture fit can result in staff who are alike – in perspectives, experiences, appearances, and approaches. Such homogeneity is antithetical to diversity and inclusion, and often results in a majority white staff: “When companies prioritize how a person fits into their preexisting culture, it maintains the status quo, which for generations has given historic and systemic educational and economic advantages to white workers,” says Monica Torres for HuffPost. Relying on a candidate’s culture fit can too easily allow for unconscious biases to come into play.

Stunt an organization’s growth

When all of an organization’s employees share the same values and points of view, the likelihood of innovation significantly decreases. An organization’s ability to grow and evolve is directly tied to the diversity of their staff; according to McKinsey, companies with greater diversity out-perform those that don’t, achieve higher levels of profitability, and are more likely to have superior value creation. After all, it’s an employee’s willingness to bring new ideas to the table—and an organization’s willingness to act on them—that results in an organization’s continuous change and improvement.

Prioritize one-on-one chemistry and connection

Culture fit is highly subjective and hard to quantify, which means that more often than not, what recruiters/hiring managers actually end up assessing is likeability. And because we are naturally drawn to people like us, likeability often equates to similarity to ourselves – an assessment tactic that’s far from objective and can result in overlooking a lack of skills among candidates who ‘fit’ culturally. Torres says of this issue: “That a prospective colleague needs to be personally relatable to the interviewer is part of the enduring idea in the U.S. workplace that who you get along with matters more than who has the skills and qualifications to get the job done.”

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So, if assessing culture fit isn’t recommended, what should organizations do instead? Focus on ‘culture add’ – the ways in which a candidate can bring a new perspective and/or skills to an organization, which will in turn diversify and improve the culture. Consider these tips to help make the shift from hiring for culture fit to hiring for culture add:

Before beginning the search for a new hire, assess what’s currently missing from your team.

Take stock of your staff. Do the ethnicities of your current staff reflect the ethnicities of the constituents your organization serves? Does your team possess introverts and extroverts, writers and analysts, big picture thinkers and those who focus on the details? Would your grassroots nonprofit benefit from staff coming from a large operation with best practice experience – or vice versa? Identifying your team’s needs is critical. Keep in mind, too, that to fill these ‘gaps’ on your team, you may need to find candidates beyond your current staff’s known network and/or outside your organization’s sector.

Create skill-based candidate criteria prior to launching a search for a new hire – and stick to them when assessing candidates.

The best way to avoid an overreliance on culture fit and unconscious biases is to judge candidates using the same set of standards (none of which should be linked to likeability). Identify the skills that are critical to success in the role (e.g., database management, proven writing ability, etc.), and provide equal consideration to all candidates who possess them.

Make a distinction between culture fit and values alignment.

While assessing culture fit can be harmful, assessing values alignment is often critical to a successful hire. The American Psychological Association found that when employees’ values are more aligned with their organizations’, they feel more committed, experience greater job satisfaction, and are less likely to leave their roles. If your organization prides itself on its commitment to social advocacy (for example), you can—and should—look for candidates who will share this commitment. But keep in mind, this commitment can be present in candidates, regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, etc. Understanding this clear difference between culture fit and values alignment is key to an effective—and inclusive—hiring process.

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The transition from prioritizing culture fit to prioritizing culture add may take time and will require a conscious effort – but it’s a worthy endeavor that will strengthen your team and organization for the long-term.  

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