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Culture Fit: A Definition

Mark Hla

I spend my days helping companies define, measure and hire against culture fit. Some critics think it’s a recipe for discrimination, but I’m going to explain why they’re wrong, and why hiring for culture fit is more important than ever in a world where societal norms and working structures are changing faster than ever. Contributor Mark Hla, CTO and Co-Founder – ThriveMap.

For as long as people have collaborated, some have worked better together than others. It goes above and beyond the skills they bring, there’s some magic that happens when the right people work together. Being able to predict that magic is the dark art of recruitment. 

In the past, the people that worked together were largely homogenous. A more restricted and less mobile workforce resulted in a higher chance of interviewing candidates with similar backgrounds and demographics. With fewer variables to contend with, the dark art of “culture fit” was less scrutinised, likely to be based on nothing more than instinct, and more likely to result in homogenous hires. 

Society has changed. Data from the Office for National Statistics is patchy, but in the ten years to 2011, the UK census estimates those classified as “White” dropped from 92% to 87%, “Christian” dropped from 72% to 59%, and the number of women in the workplace increased, rising from 53% in 1971 to 71% in 2018. We also have a developing understanding of gender identity, so not only are demographics diverging along existing lines, but new lines are being added too.

With today’s diverse workforce and an increasing awareness of bias and discrimination, it’s essential to know that your hiring criteria are relevant, objective and based on how people work, not who people are. The process should be focused on finding the best person for the job, not the best self-marketer. However, when I surveyed a selection of HRDs in the UK, the majority told me they assessed culture fit in their hiring yet didn’t have an objective method to measure it. So, what’s going on?

A quick google of “hiring for culture fit” will show you the number and diversity of opinions on the subject. The debate is sometimes about the concept of fit itself; although this often stems from the misapprehension that to “fit” means to be the same (it doesn’t). More frequently the debate is about “culture”, and what this elusive concept actually is. The options are numerous, with some claiming a scientific theory and others shooting much more from the proverbial hip. Why is it important? Well, if we can’t define it, we can’t measure it, and if we can’t measure it, we shouldn’t hire against it.

Let’s address four of the most popular definitions: ethics, values, demographics, and gut feel.

Let’s start with ethics. It’s a sad fact, but corporate misadventure is reasonably common in the news. When things go wrong, the press often tell us that so-and-so company had a rule-breaking or unethical “culture”. This could lead you to consider ethics and culture as being synonymous. Somehow, the use of the word “culture” elevates responsibility upwards through the chain of command to land squarely at the CEO’s feet. This certainly makes a more interesting story than “Mr Smith chose to break the rules”, but it doesn’t identify a characteristic of the organisation that can be hired against. When you think about culture fit, do you think about something as narrow as ethics? No. Ethics are an important part of an organisation, but they’re a minimum hiring requirement, not a characteristic of fit. Or at least they should be.

Now let’s consider values. In my professional experience, this is the most commonly cited definition by organisations claiming to measure culture fit. Organisational values (as you’re aware) are normally set through a collaborative process, sometimes with the C suite members, sometimes with the employees, and more often than not, with the HR leaders. These tend to result in a collection of aspirational words or statements. They represent the organisation at its best, but in a way that can be general enough to apply equally to the sales director and the receptionist. They are sometimes, and it’s sad to say, used more as a marketing tool than to modulate behaviour.

Let’s take Uber’s example. They describe their values as “cultural norms”. One of which is “We do the right thing. Period”. If we ignore the fact that the alternative “We do the wrong thing. Period” shows the redundancy of their statement, that isn’t the main issue. Values give an organisation a lens through which specific behaviour can be assessed, rules can be set, and incentives devised. 

Values aren’t culture. Values are aspirations; representing what the company is aiming for, while culture is what actually happens; how people think and act in real life. Finding people to fit a culture, means assessing them against reality.

The most noxious of the definitions of culture is demographics. For much of the past, and sadly too much of the present, demographics inadvertently seeps into the hiring manager’s concept of culture. We’re all acutely aware of hiring bias by gender, age, race, or religion. No organisation worth its salt would espouse a hiring process that measured these to assess culture fit. However, the absence of a clear definition of what culture is, creates a vacuum that often unconscious bias of demographics will fill. Unless an organisation takes proactive steps to measure and assess culture, hiring for demographic fit will be an increased risk.

The final definition of culture is the most pervasive, where the hiring manager just “knows” about fit and has a “gut feeling” about a candidate. In our survey, over three quarters of respondents said this is how they assessed culture fit in their recruitment process. They may justify their assessment based on successes and failures in the past. Sometimes it will be a panel of people whose collective guts represent the divining rod of recruitment. Whether it’s one person making the decision or many, those decisions need to be based on, and limited to, a pre-agreed objective assessment framework. That still doesn’t answer the question of what culture is, but it certainly isn’t a feeling in your gut.

OK. That’s a lot of time spent telling you what culture isn’t, but let’s recap what I hope that teaches us. It’s not about ethics because that’s a minimum hiring requirement. It’s not about aspirational values, but about what actually happens. We can’t just avoid measuring it because it leaves room for discrimination, and whatever we do, our hiring decisions need to be based on a pre-agreed objective framework. So, what is culture?

People science tends to over-complicate things. I prefer to keep it simple. When I think about a successful hire, I break it into three components: capability, commitment, and culture fit. Capability is whether someone can do the job; whether they have the actual skills and ability. Commitment is whether someone wants to do the job; whether they are really motivated to want to join the team and perform the role. When you remove capability and commitment, you’re left with culture fit, so what is it that’s left?

I’ve spent a long time thinking about this, but in truth the answer is reasonably simple: it’s how people like to work. For example, they have the required skills and experience (capability), they are passionate about the product or service (commitment), and they prefer early starts over late finishes (culture). It doesn’t mean they couldn’t work in teams with late finishes, but they’d prefer the other. This is a crucial point about culture. Failing to fit doesn’t mean being unable to perform the role. It means not performing the role as well as they could, and that’s the elusive attribute we are trying to measure. Will I get the best from this candidate if I put them in this culture?

We talked about an objective framework, and that’s the next step. How do you define the work preferences that are important to your company? I use five categories: decision making, implementation, performance, interaction and career progression. Your categories may be different, but your experienced leaders should be able to create a framework they agree on. It’s important that these categories match how the company operates.

If you’re ready to give it a go, here are my tips. Focus at a team level, because as soon as you think at an organisational level, you’re too high up to see how people actually work. Choose categories that have two positive alternatives, this is not about being right or wrong. Think ‘risk seeking’ versus ‘risk avoiding’ rather than say ‘honest’ versus ‘dishonest’. Create a simple questionnaire to measure your team’s work preferences on a scale between the two alternatives. Use the same assessment for your candidates. Compare your candidates with your team. Don’t forget, if it’s capability or commitment, it isn’t culture.

I’ve made the case that culture fit is real, and it’s important to understand what part it plays in your hiring. I hope I’ve shown how you can find your own definition of culture fit, and what definitions to avoid. If you take the time to understand and define culture fit, it won’t just improve your hiring outcomes, it will take the dark art out of hiring for fit, so that bias and discrimination can’t hide in its shadows.

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