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I remember the first time I heard the phrase cultural fit.
I was interviewing a candidate for an open role in a previous company. I went back upstairs to my desk and sat down. My then-manager came over and asked, “So, do you think they’re a good culture fit?”
It’s a tricky question to answer. Hiring for cultural fit can be problematic.
Author Laura Rivera explored this topic in her book Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs. According to Forbes, Rivera found that managers heavily favor cultural fit. In fact, 82% of managers said fit is one of the most important things that they look for. Until recently, in many companies, one interview was designated the "fit" interview.
In fact, many HR and company leaders have moved away from hiring for cultural fit. It’s outdated, risks losing out on great talent from diverse talent pools, and can reinforce unconscious bias and unwanted behavior.
But what does cultural fit mean? Is your company currently hiring for cultural fit or cultural add? How do you know which one is best for your organization?
What is cultural fit?
It’s important to understand what cultural fit means to be able to identify it in hiring practices. A cultural fit can be defined in a few different ways, depending on your company’s culture.
We define a cultural fit as sharing the same behaviors, values, interests, and work preferences. But the key part in this phrase is the term “fit.” To fit into a culture, this means the person must have some sort of homophily.
Research shows us that the phrase “birds of a feather flock together” has some credence. In fact, similarity has been proven to breed connection. This happens inside and outside of work relationships, like in friendships or even marriage.
The result means that people’s personal networks are largely homogenous. It can lack diversity, lack challenging thoughts or ideas, lack differing perspectives. So, what does that look like when it comes to hiring?
What does hiring for cultural fit mean?
Hiring for cultural fit will vary by organization. After all, every organization’s culture is different. But at its heart, this means interviewers are looking for specific things. This includes traits, attributes, and behaviors that are likely similar to their current employees.
For example, a recruiter might find three top candidates for a sales position. The sales team in this particular organization is pretty male-dominated. They often find themselves talking about Saturday’s basketball games on Monday morning.
Only one of the candidates is a big sports fan. The other two candidates, who happen to be women, like competition, but they aren’t big on following college sports.
The hiring manager starts out with a bunch of culture fit questions. He finishes interviewing all three candidates with this set of questions. He reports that he connected well with the one male candidate. They had a great conversation about Villanova.
Even though all three candidates are well-qualified and could do the job, the hiring manager is leaning towards the candidate who likes the same sports team. He seems like a better candidate.
He could see the guy fitting right in.
While this example is fictitious, it’s an example of what hiring for cultural fit could be like in your organization. People like to find common ground. They dislike conflict, even productive conflict, especially at work. As a result, people tend to gravitate towards things they know — familiar and homogenous.
The pros and cons of hiring for culture fit
There are benefits and drawbacks to hiring for culture fit. Let’s explore what seeking fit could mean for your company.
Pro: It can save your company money
This benefit only works if the company deeply understands its culture in terms of values, behaviors, working styles, and purpose. That understanding of company culture needs to translate into hires that work well within the organization and its mission and strategy.
In this case, culture fit isn't about getting along well with one another. It's about thriving and delivering in a particular work environment.
And only then will this lead to saved company costs in recruiting, hiring, and training talent. It’s a bit of a long shot, especially because hiring for culture fit is fairly subjective.
It doesn’t guarantee the opportunity to save the company money but it could come as a benefit if a company has its culture figured out. It’s good to examine whether or not you have a dominant company culture.
Pro: It’s possible it helps with employer branding
Much like the first benefit, this pro only works if employees are engaged. Let’s say company A has a good understanding of its culture and what is important about it to the people who work there. It hires people who fit into those aspects of current culture.
Because everyone in the company seems to be somewhat similar on the things people notice, people connect.
That connection can lead to increased employee engagement. As a result, employer branding can be a huge benefit here. But it’s a lot of dominoes to tick along the way to make sure this is pulled off well. And if we know anything about culture fit, it’s highly subjective.
Con: Diversity, inclusion, and belonging suffers
A lack of diversity is the biggest drawback of hiring for cultural fit. If like-minded people are hiring folks who are similar to them, it’s not likely the organization is diversifying its workforce.
This can show up, even when hitting diversity hiring targets but only achieving surface-level diversity. For example, searching for a candidate from an under-represented group who in all other aspects "fits" the mold of the team: behavior, interests, education, background, and aspirations. The candidate will usually bring some diversity simply by living as a member of an under-represented group, but teams are missing the opportunity to embrace more diverse perspectives.
Hiring for culture fit can encourage bias, especially unconscious bias. It can encourage groupthink and can lead to toxicity (and even hostility) in the workplace. It can make employees feel like they don’t fit in.
Hiring diverse teams is better for your employees and your business. Diverse teams are smarter. Diverse teams can better solve complex problems. Diverse teams are more creative, innovative, and better positioned to succeed.
And, invisible diversity is everywhere. Companies hire people with invisible disabilities and other aspects of diversity often. If a company is seemingly hiring for culture fit, pair it with inclusive leadership.
If your leaders aren't modeling inclusive behaviors, it’s likely employees will be unhappy down the road. It’s important to factor diversity recruiting as well as strong inclusion, belonging, and development into your organization’s talent acquisition strategy.
We’ll talk more in the next section about what this could mean for your business.
Con: Employee retention could suffer
Without a deep sense of belonging, employee retention will suffer. This is also true for employees with invisible disabilities that were hired using culture fit assessments. But without intentionality behind inclusivity in the workplace, these employees don’t feel like they belong.
The result? Well, they leave. Employee retention is a huge factor to consider when hiring for cultural fit. It’s not possible to get to know the whole person in an interview. When the whole person shows up for work every day and doesn’t feel like they belong, they aren’t going to stick around.
Con: It can hurt your company’s performance
The cons add up: Hiring for culture fit can hurt your company’s performance. We know that employee turnover hurts performance. We also know that a lack of diversity has a huge impact on company performance.
Critical thinking and innovation are important for any company's success. The downside of a team that easily "gets along" is a team that doesn't question its assumptions or bring in challenging perspectives, leading to groupthink. And treating cultural fit as a goal can cause team members to become invested in their fit, encouraging conformity and consensus.
And we know that without the right support, sense of belonging, and acceptance of people as their whole selves, the company will suffer.
What is culture add?
Hiring for cultural fit is outdated and ineffective for unlocking the human potential needed for a rapidly changing world. Many organizations have shifted to hiring for cultural add, not cultural fit.
What is culture add?
A culture add is someone who brings diverse experiences, perspectives, and ideas to the workplace. A culture add is someone who enhances the company culture, a missing piece that changes the picture. A culture add models desired behaviors and values while empowering growth.
At BetterUp, we believe that the whole person shows up to work every day. This means that every person is unique and brings their whole selves to work. In order to cultivate the best parts of ourselves, we need tools and resources that’ll help us reach our full potential.
Tina Gupta, VP of Talent Development and Employee Experience at WarnerMedia, shares how the organization has navigated its culture with the help of coaching.
How to interview for culture add versus culture fit
Hopefully, by now, you’ve identified whether cultural fit or cultural add is best for your organization. We’ve compiled some questions that can help your recruiting assess culture fit vs. culture add.
Interviewing for cultural fit
If you’re hiring for culture fit, consider some of these questions:
- Do you understand your company’s culture? If you’re hiring for a cultural fit, it’s best that you understand your company’s culture. Take some time to analyze the organizational culture. What do you notice?
- How would you define your company’s brand? This aspect goes hand-in-hand with company culture. What do you want your company to be known for? How do you want to define your brand? What role do the people you hire have in your brand’s identity?
- What interview styles do you use? Behavioral-based interview questions (like ones using the STAR method) are best. You might also consider open-ended questions about the preferred work environment, relationships, and values.
Interviewing for culture add
If you’re hiring for culture add, consider some of these culture add questions:
- Will they be effective in our work environment? There’s a difference between being effective and being boxed in. How will this person operate within the current workplace environment? Bringing diverse perspectives works if they also have the skills, resilience, and mindset to succeed. That might mean adding additional support in the org to make successful culture add possible. In this new normal way of working, how will they thrive?
- In what ways will this candidate enhance our company culture? This takes some examining of your company’s culture. What is your culture missing? What will this person add? How can this person enhance aspects of your company’s culture?
- How am I challenged by this candidate? Growth is uncomfortable. And sometimes, diverse perspectives can be challenging. But in the end, discomfort is where growth happens. What can you learn from this candidate? How are you challenged by this candidate?
- Does their purpose align with the company’s purpose? Find the purpose and meaning of your work. And then, see if their purpose matches with the company’s core values. If there’s synergy there, it’s probably a great match.
A company’s values matter — and so does workplace culture. But at the heart of culture is purpose, clarity, and passion. How are you finding the purpose of your work?
Start building a thriving company culture
The recruiting process is never an easy one. And hiring new employees — and interviewing potential employees — comes with its own set of challenges.
You might be looking to rebuild your corporate culture. Or perhaps you want to enhance your workplace culture and are looking for ways to bring DEI into the fold. Hiring culture adds can help unlock your workforce’s potential.
With BetterUp, you can help your people thrive. Consider ways you can give your team members access to personalized coaching and support. After all, hiring people is hard. And the hiring decision can be tricky to navigate.
You want your people to bring their best selves to work every day in order to hire the best people. Together, we can help your company thrive.
Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.