The Myth of Culture Fit: Practices that Perpetuate the Myth

Hiring for and encouraging culture fit within our organizations is a concept that sounds ideal, in theory.  The problem is that the reality of culture fit is often misaligned with what it should, in fact, represent.  In a recent post I set the stage for this misalignment; in this post I’d like to delve into a few of things that I believe contribute to our organizations perpetuating the wrong kind of culture fit.


To Promote or Not To Promote From Within

Promoting within our organizations is a good thing, right?  Isn’t internal mobility something that all good HR leaders should strive for, a way to retain and develop our high performers?

The quick answer to that is yes, of course we want to retain our high performers and provide them with the opportunity to develop and grow their careers internally.  After all, internal candidates are known entities – their accomplishments, work ethic, established relationships, shortened learning curves, and understanding of how to navigate corporate politics often set them apart from the unknown of the external candidate.

But here’s the caveat: internal mobility is a positive force, as long as it’s appropriately and strategically balanced with bringing in fresh ideas from outside the organization.

The danger when we are over-reliant on internal mobility is the risk of stifling innovation; often internal candidates only know what they know, particularly if they are long-term employees, and may not have the resources to bring forth fresh ideas, perspectives, and approaches that an external hire may.

The other risk we run is when internal mobility is coupled with that false sense of culture fit discussed in the previous post; when those who are promoted are chosen because they “fit in” to a prescribed vision of what leadership should look like rather than based on actual skills and abilities.  In this case we may be perpetuating a style of leadership that has been historically accepted, but may in reality not be the inclusive style we need and want.  Or we may lean towards promoting those who reflect surface personality traits we think are key to success in the role rather than the skills required.  Or even worse, we may run the risk of perpetuating toxic leadership – those employees who have achieved results, but often at the detriment of those around them as they destroy morale and leave a path of destruction in their wake.


Qualifications and Job Requirements

When we’re looking to fill a job, we generally evaluate candidates on the basis of a combination of skills and experience.  But what happens when we rely a little too much on that idea of “applicable experience” or even more specifically “applicable industry experience?”

Depending on the level of the position we’re looking to fill, some level of industry experience may be necessary.  Where we can get ourselves into trouble is when we become too biased on the amount of experience required, and it becomes an exercise in seeking those who have performed this exact job, in this exact industry, rather than focusing on the specific skills and abilities required to be successful.  Not unlike the pitfalls of promoting from within, too much reliance on that exact experience could encourage the hiring of the same types of people, who fit a specific “profile,” rather than encouraging diverse and different types of hires.  And this ultimately can lead to perpetuating the same approaches to solving problems, stifle innovation, and prevent fresh ideas and approaches from being brought into the company.

When we hear someone say “we need people who understand our industry, who understand what they are getting into,” it’s important to push a little further.  What does that actually mean?  Is it truly industry experience we need, or is it the ability to thrive in a specific type of environment?  Often what we seek is not exclusive to a specific industry.


Imposed Career Paths

Another practice we embrace in HR is career pathing, or outlining the logical steps in specific career progressions within our organizations.  Directly related to internal mobility, this can also be a highly effective process that can help our employees see the career possibilities we can offer to them, fostering retention of our high performers.  The pitfall of this approach, however, is when we pigeon-hole those high performers into one set career path without regard for their interests, ambitions, and particular gifts and skills.  Or when we allow managers to use career pathing as an excuse to hoard their top performers who they don’t want to give up.

Just because those that came before them followed a set, seemingly logical path does not necessarily mean that all have a desire to follow that same path. What if instead of forcing employees along that prescribed path they don’t want to pursue – regardless of whether or not they are good at it – we were to look at exactly what their strengths are and where else those strengths could be applied?

Forcing employees into certain roles because the path “makes sense” may prevent us from leveraging their skills in a new and innovative way that could not only allow them to flourish, but it could also bring diversity of thought or a new approach to a different area of the business.




Internal mobility, career pathing, and outlining of required skills and experience for particular jobs are all key HR practices that contribute to organizational success.  I’m not proposing that as HR leaders we stop promoting from within, hiring for the right qualifications and experience, and designing career paths to encourage career development of high performers within our organizations.  But I do offer a word of caution, that we ensure that these practices are not used as an excuse to perpetuate the development and advancement of only certain types of individuals.  Let’s be wary of an illusion of “culture fit” that in reality creates an environment of conformity rather than leveraging the best of what all employees can offer.


About the Author

Jennifer Payne

Jennifer Payne is a 20+ year human resources leader with a focus on researching, developing, and implementing talent management programs. She is a believer in lifelong learning and self-development who strives to stay current in HR trends, technology, best practices, and the future of work by sharing knowledge with and learning from HR colleagues and thought leaders across the country and throughout the world through writing, speaking, and involvement in various industry conferences and events.  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...



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