Just a few years ago, a now-client was hiring his first employee to help him launch a startup – with big plans to disrupt the marketplace. “Culture is our differentiator,” the CEO told the interviewee. “Culture is how I’ll ensure our people don’t just do what they’re told, they do what is needed. You’ve got to fit.” Today, with record sales and exponential growth, his team is achieving his vision of upending the industry — and delighting customers in the process.
This CEO represents just the type of people I want to consult with as a leadership advisor and coach. Hearing my client speak fervently about the importance of people and culture, I had to ask, “What do you mean by culture fit?”
The Bias Trap
A robust and growing body of evidence suggests hiring for culture fit can harbor bias. The risk is people beginning to believe that to “fit in” here, you have to “be like us.” In psychology, this reflects the “Similar to Me Bias,” which implies we tend to have an affinity for people who are alike to us in some way. Racial and gender studies suggest that this phenomenon can make it difficult for newcomers to be viewed as capable. All too often, what people really mean by “culture fit” is “someone they’d want to have a beer with.”
Culture fit should not serve to screen candidates for particular personality traits. Doing so will effectively cannibalize your Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion goals. Consider the stereotypical tech startup that begins as a group of white men – and then later wonders why their workforce continues to be dominated by white men. Even when organizations claim to cultivate an open, diverse culture, aspiration doesn’t always line up with execution, and pressures to assimilate can replace achieving true inclusivity. Jodi-Ann Burey eloquently illustrates this in her TED Talk, “Why You Should Not Bring Your Authentic Self to Work.”
What Does “Fit” Actually Mean?
So where does that leave leaders, in terms of making sure their hiring decisions take into account “fit” while mitigating bias? Organizations must ensure their managers and leaders are making personnel decisions based on valid, job-relevant information. If an organization is going to make decisions based on culture fit, it would be unwise for those assessments to be based on someone’s opinion about a person or candidate.
At Vantage, we define culture fit as someone’s ability to align with the operating principles of the organization. Before offering our evaluation of culture fit in an assessment, we must first understand how work gets done. Is it a highly decentralized organization where you have to find your own resources and make your own decisions, with very little mandate from above? Or is it a traditionally hierarchical place where success comes down to marshalling broad support from senior leadership before acting? Further, is the expectation that you come in and make an immediate impact through big ideas and change? Or are you expected to spend 6 months learning the ins and outs of the organization before daring to suggest that you know a better way of doing things? The business model, operating principles, and structure of any organization create inherent tensions, challenges, and opportunities. When we discuss culture fit, what we mean is: can they navigate your business with ease, or will they need some help?
Another point to note is the benefit of someone who is “countercultural.” A recent HBR study showed that if you want someone to come in, hit the ground running, and be quickly effective in a new role, adaptability is more important than culture fit. For example, I work with a relationship-focused company that is growing dramatically, and success in this environment means people will have to do things they’ve never done before, in ways they’ve never done them. I recently evaluated an external candidate who prioritizes business results, and can support employees while pushing higher standards of accountability. This approach will definitely challenge the way work gets done in the organization, but in a time where they seek to grow and extend their culture to meet future business demands, a countercultural hire may be just what they need.
Making It Work
So how did the market-disrupting CEO answer my question? “By culture fit, I mean I don’t have to worry about if you’ll act in alignment with our values. Your behavior and actions are an extension of the business,” he said.
“That’s vague,” I told him. “Culture fit means the CEO doesn’t have to worry? How could one of your managers evaluate that?”
He smiled. “You’re right. Help me to better define it.” We explored the organizational structure, the customer expectations, the marketplace, and the industry demands.
“Taking into account all of these conditions you’ve described,” I said, “how must your team operate to achieve success? That’s the culture fit you should worry about.”
What operating principles define your organization’s culture? How do you assess for fit while mitigating bias? Tell us in the comments below!