Why Hiring for “Culture Fit” Could Be Damaging Your Company

George Bell
Why Hiring for “Culture Fit” Could Be Damaging Your Company

A ‘good company culture’ is something that many businesses strive for in the modern age, and it is often touted as a major selling point by employers at interviews.

But has it become too much of a phenomenon? Have companies placed creating a cool and desirable culture above the basic necessities of having experienced employees that can actually get the job done? In this article we investigate why hiring for „culture fit“ could actually be holding your business back, and why the concept of “organisational fit” is a much smarter barometer for assessing new candidates.

The importance of company culture

Let’s be clear from the start – we’re not arguing against the value and importance of a good company culture, but the detrimental effects that can come from placing it on a pedestal or losing sight of why it was nurtured in the first place.

Company cultures have been examined and written about extensively – none more so than that of Google, which has been built in the image of their former Senior Vice President of People Operations, Laszlo Bock.

‘Google’ and ‘culture’ have pretty much become synonymous terms. Their main headquarters, aptly named Googleplex, has become more of a giant adult’s theme park than a traditional place of work.

They have employees whose sole job is to make the rest of Google’s employees happier. They boast impressive benefits such as free meals, health & dental checks, haircuts and dry cleaning. Massages are subsidised, gyms & swimming pools are onsite and they even have plans to have rooftop gardens split over multiple storeys in their proposed London office.

Block is seen as the father and architect of Google’s now immortalised culture, and he made dramatics changes to expand employee benefits even further. It was found that women, particularly new mothers, were leaving the company at twice the rate of anyone else. So, Block changed mother’s paternity leave from 12 weeks to 5 months, will full pay and benefits. What was the result? A 50% reduction in women leaving the company.

As Block himself says “Imagine how work would feel for you if, instead of people coming to you with anxiety and desperation, they shared their gratitude for making their lives easier and for being there when they most needed support.”

These benefits come at a substantial cost for Google. But this cost is outweighed by the even more monumental cost of low employee engagement and high turnover. And there is no denying that having the right kind of culture in place can help propel your business to new heights; there’s a reason that Google has been ranked as the #1 company to work for six years running.

Google’s focus on employee engagement and wellbeing leads to a happier and more productive workforce. Supporting this, a 2009 study by the World Economic Forum found that businesses that support healthy habits will find that their employees are eight times more dedicated, and three-and-a-half times more creative.

Furthermore, a company with happy employees is a company that succeeds. It was found by the University of Warwick that a business which a happy workforce are 12% more productive than the average worker.

Clearly, there is a case for having this elusive ‘good culture.’ However, many companies and employers of today run the risk of wanting to recreate their staff in their own image, citing their rationale for picking candidates as ‘being a good culture fit’. Building a culture of the same personality, same age, race, gender etc. can actually do more harm to a business than good. Oftentimes, the candidates whose backgrounds and personalities contradict the “norms” of a company are in fact the most effective hires.

Why culture misfits can mean business benefits

This shouldn’t need to be highlighted, but hiring people that are different is by no means a bad thing. Steve Shepherd, a former recruitment executive, was quoted as saying that he would intentionally hire people who would make him feel uncomfortable; people that he wouldn’t invite home for a barbeque. These people he hired purposefully as a culture ‘unfit’.

Take, for example, Steve Jobs returning to Apple after he’d been fired. He was fired because he demanded too much from his employees, he was difficult to work for, and, ultimately, he was no longer the right culture fit for the business.

Yet when Apple began to crash, he was asked to come back. Did everyone want him there? No. Did they need him there? Yes. And how did that play out? Well, Apple is now the most valuable company in the world with a brand value of $170 billion. 

One of Jobs’ most popular quotes further supports this mindset: “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so that they can tell us what to do.”

As one of the most successful business leaders of our generation, he understood that you couldn’t just hire people in your own image. You need those who think differently, act differently and live differently. Even Steve Jobs needed an antithesis.

Hiring for ‘organisational fit’ and eliminating bias

It is imperative for a company that they hire the right people with the right skills for their business. While it’s true that building a strong culture is vital to success, a diversity of backgrounds and opinions brings with it a wealth of creativity that can only come from welcoming conflicting points of view.

So how do you make sure that you assess candidates by their benefit to the business, and not just because they would be a good cultural fit? The key is to look for organisational fit.

Put simply, organisational fit is a measure of the extent to which an employee’s personal values align with those of their company rather than their personality. The importance of this alignment has been studied by Adrian Furnham, a psychologist, who describes it as the “congruence between the norms and values of the organisation and those of the person.”

By focusing on organisational fit, employees are likely to stay longer, have better relationships with their peers, and will be more productive. Furthermore, employees who have shared values and a shared vision can work together in the same direction.

Some of the world’s leading organisations have started to acknowledge that focusing on “culture fit” is the wrong approach and have shifted their hiring processes to more closely reflect their organisational values.

Facebook is perhaps the most well-known proponent of this shift, and have famously prohibited the term “culture fit” from being used when providing feedback on prospective candidates. Instead the company assesses interviewees based on their alignment to their five core business values;

  1. Be Bold
  2. Focus on Impact
  3. Move Fast
  4. Be Open
  5. Build Social Value

This is done in order to remove bias from the interview process. The term “culture fit” has almost become a weapon that interviewers use to shoot down potential candidates, deeming would-be suitable workers culturally unfit. Worse still, this isn’t even always intentional, and has instead become an “unconscious bias”.

As one Facebook spokesperson said: ”At Facebook, we’ve explicitly asked interviewers not to use the term ‘culture fit’ when giving feedback on a candidate because that phrase can easily allow bias to influence the outcome of an interview. As part of a larger effort to help people identify and correct for the biases that we all inherently have, interviewers at Facebook go through managing bias training and are encouraged to use the skills they’ve learned when interviewing candidates.”

Some businesses, such as Victoria Police, Australia Post and Ernst & Young have even gone one step further in their bid to remove personal and cultural biases from the hiring process, by  anonymising candidate applications.

However, the criticisms of this initiative are obvious, as the candidate is going to have to meet their potential new employers face-to-face at some point. As Jon Williams, the global leader of people and organisation at PricewaterhouseCoopers, says “there are very few jobs where you are going to appoint someone purely on the basis of a written submission without actually meeting them.”

He continues “we need to start addressing the bias itself and its roots so that people actually make the right decision in the first instance.”

Lisa Annese, Chief Executive of Diversity Council Australia, shares this viewpoint, and offers solutions such as including as diverse a group as possible in the interview process or to have those that will be conducting the interviewing involved in some basic training to make them aware of bias.

Why making the right hire matters

Clearly, the problem needs to be tackled at its very core. The emphasis for hiring needs to be placed on finding candidates who are the right organisational fit, as this mindset encompasses all of the qualities that you want to look for in an employee. These are people that not only have the right skills for the job, but they can also bring fresh and diverse ideas to the team, as well as exhibiting the characteristics that align with the mission and philosophy of the company.

You need a balance in your business, and maintaining a diverse workforce is the beginning of that journey. Follow the lead of Facebook by focussing on your core business values, and asking yourself who makes for the best organisational fit for your company.

It’s crucial to get this right, as a bad hire can cost a business anywhere between 30% and 150% of an employee’s first year’s salary. Remember your company’s mission and what you collectively, as a team, are working to achieve. If you stick to your core principles and ethos, then you’ll find that the culture falls naturally into place.

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