The Myth of “Culture Fit”

Company culture is a priority that is becoming more and more important to companies and HR professionals.  In fact, the “2018 HR Trends Report” from McLean & Company cites culture as now the number one priority for the companies surveyed.  So the idea of hiring for culture fit is a concept that has gained much traction in recent years as well; the thought that specific skills and knowledge can be taught and it’s more important to seek talent that matches company culture, or that “fits in,” has become the focus of many HR pros and hiring managers.

It’s an idea that sounds great in concept, but it comes with a risk.  That risk manifests when hiring for “culture fit” becomes an excuse for hiring too many of the “same” types of employees.  When even if we don’t realize it, we focus and hone in on the wrong things when we assess “culture fit.” And when we do that, the result becomes far too homogeneous of an organization.  Why is that so bad?  Well, quite simply because research shows that organizations that embrace diversity of thought generate better ideas, have better problem solving, and ultimately produce better results.

So what exactly does “culture fit” mean?  And what should it mean?

 

Culture Defined

Looking at a definition of the word “culture” we find the following:

 

“The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization.” (Mirriam Webster)

“The behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group.” (Dictionary.com)

“The sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another.” (Dictionary.com)

 

So if we take a combination of those three definitions, we could say that company or organizational culture is a set of shared beliefs/goals/values that are developed collectively by the individuals within an organization over time and passed along as new individuals enter the organization.  So hiring for culture fit becomes an exercise in finding folks who will most easily assimilate into those shared beliefs, values, and goals.  Sounds fair enough, right?

 

The Myth

It certainly sounds like the right approach if in fact what we seek when hiring for culture fit is truly focusing on finding individuals that share the same values as the organization.  The problem is, as humans, we tend to gravitate towards people who are like us.  And when we say “like us” we often mean those who have things in common with us.  It’s human nature to try to find commonalities to make connections with others, so it stands to reason that it could be really hard to take that out of the equation when assessing someone who may work with us or for us.

So hiring for culture fit should mean:

  • We share the same goals and/or core values, and those are in alignment with the goals and values of the company, and/or
  • We share the same approach to work, an approach that is proven to be successful in our organizations (i.e. entrepreneurial, innovative thinker, comfortable with risk taking, etc.)

 

But if we allow our personal biases to creep in, culture fit sometimes ends up meaning:

  • We like you
  • You are like us
  • We went to the same college
  • We like the same sports teams
  • We have the same hobbies

And when we focus too much on these things, not only to we tend to hire those who end up thinking like us, therefore discouraging diversity of thought and problem solving, but we also risk alienating those already within our organizations who might not fit this mold.

 

Fitting In vs. True Belonging

Researcher, writer, and TED speaker Brene Brown in her books “Daring Greatly” and “Braving the Wilderness” talks about the difference between fitting in and belonging:

 

“Belonging is being somewhere you want to be, and they want you.  Fitting in is being somewhere you want to be, but they don’t care one way or the other.”

“Belonging is being accepted for you.  Fitting in is being accepted for being like everyone else.”

“If I get to be me, I belong.  If I have to be like you, I fit in.”

 

When we hire for the wrong kind of culture fit, we tend to force the need to fit in, rather than promote a culture in which true belonging exists.  And without true belonging, we discourage that diversity of thought that has been proven to be so critical to organizational success.

 

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I believe that there are a number of practices that we can tend to fall into within our organizations that can contribute to the wrong kind of culture fit and perpetuate homogeneous organizations.   Over the next few posts I’ll explore some of those practices.  Stay tuned!

 

 

About the Author

Jennifer Payne

Jennifer Payne, SPHR, SHRM-SCP has almost two decades of HR experience in employee relations, talent acquisition, learning & development, and employee communications, and currently works in talent management in the retail grocery industry. She is one of the co-founders of Women of HR, and is currently the Editor of the site. You can connect with her on Twitter as @JennyJensHR and on LinkedIn.

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