In an ideal hiring situation, a top-tier candidate would possess both the requisite skillset as well as a great cultural fit in the organisation. However, the reality is that these candidates can be difficult to come by, forcing companies to confront a difficult question: should they value skills or culture fit in candidates?
This is an ongoing debate among hiring teams with workplace culture fit becoming an increasingly important factor of consideration when companies hire candidates. This is most notably seen in Amazon, one of the world’s biggest companies, which has built their own 14 key principles and hired around this to create cultural fit.
To understand this further, let us look at why companies are even hiring for cultural fit in the first place.
What is Cultural Fit?
Cultural fit refers to how likely a candidate will be able to integrate into an organisation and adapt to its values, mission and vision. It is an important criterion that hiring teams consider when evaluating candidates because employers generally want to create a positive, productive workplace environment where people can work harmoniously, with minimal politics.
What are the Benefits of Cultural Fit?
Cultural fit helps employees feel valued and gives them a sense of belonging, which can reduce turnover rates, increase employee productivity, employee engagement and job satisfaction. Indeed, in a survey of US employees, it was found that employee disengagement in the US was up at 64% in 2021, with 74% of this group actively looking for new jobs.
A reason for why cultural fit in candidates may be favoured over skills is that the lack of skills is a problem that can be overcome with on-the-job training. On the other hand, cultural fit is considered to be untrainable, and will not apply to skilled candidates who do not mesh well with an organisation.
The importance of cultural fit can be seen in how 97% of employees and executives believe that misalignment in a team can significantly impact the outcome of a project. Similarly, 86% point to a breakdown in communication and ineffective collaboration as the driving reasons for workplace failures. Cultural fit is crucial as it ensures that new hires can collaborate and communicate effectively in teams.
The Problem With Cultural Fit and Why It Might Not Matter as Much as Skills
Conversely, some employers are not too concerned with cultural fit and only care whether a candidate possesses the necessary skills, especially in technical roles. After all, skills are often obvious on a candidate’s resume and can inform a hiring manager or recruiter’s evaluation of a candidate almost immediately. In contrast, cultural fit is not something that is immediately obvious on a resume and usually comes to the surface during the interview stage.
It is for this same reason that there are critics who advise against hiring based on cultural fit alone. Cultural fit is something that cannot be tangibly measured, unlike a candidate’s skillset, and basing hiring decisions on this criterion alone might seem arbitrary and based on unfounded biases. For instance, cultural fit can become controversial when a company’s method of evaluating a candidate’s cultural fit is based on how well they can “click” and identify with the candidate.
A common background or life experience may mislead hiring managers into thinking that an alignment between themselves and a candidate is the same as the candidate aligning with their organisation. Likewise, basing hiring decisions on cultural fit alone may also lead to other drawbacks such as a lack of diversity, which leads to reduced innovation and creative problem solving, as well as organisations overlooking qualified candidates who may not fit their culture perfectly, but are adaptable to different working and communication styles.
How to Hire for Culture Add Instead of Culture Fit
Nonetheless, these problems with cultural fit can be avoided. If your organisation places an emphasis on cultural fit to some degree, just as many other companies have, there is value in adopting an approach where you hire for “cultural add” rather than "cultural fit.”
A “cultural add” approach to hiring is when organisations hire people who bring something new and unique to the table, rather than hiring someone who matches the existing team. This fresh perspective gives organisations an understanding that workplace culture is one that constantly evolves and not one that is static. At the same time, cultural add still organisations avoid creating a homogeneous workforce and its associated problems: groupthink, lack of different perspectives, and a reduction in creative problem solving and innovation.
When it comes to evaluating candidates’ cultural fit or cultural add in a more objective way, organisations must first be very clear on their culture values, and structure a standardised assessment revolving around these values in the interview process for fairer evaluations of candidates.
How Cultural Fit Helped a Big MNC
Rather than tossing away the culture fit criterion completely, Atlassian hired for “values fit” instead, a more objective factor that eliminated the likelihood of unconscious bias, while at the same time ensuring that the candidate could still work effectively within the company.
As a result, they revamped their interview process by training interviewers on conducting structured interviews and raising awareness on unconscious biases in interviewing, as well as creating a questionnaire around the company’s values which had been explicitly defined. Undoubtedly, this is a much fairer approach than hiring based on “gut feeling” of a candidate’s cultural fit in an organisation.
For most organisations, both skills and cultural fit (or cultural add) are important factors in hiring decisions. Companies should strive to find a balance between the two, but more importantly, they should ensure that they have implemented fair hiring practices to create an inclusive workplace.
The weightage of each factor also varies across organisations that have to consider how much resources are available to hire and train someone who lacks experience but is otherwise a great cultural fit. Likewise, for larger organisations that have a heavy focus on collaboration, cultural fit may weigh heavier in hiring decisions.
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