Why businesses should be careful about hiring for cultural fit

The coming trend in HR circles is for firms to hire on the basis of a candidate’s cultural fit. This basically means, as Google would have it, that they hire people who they believe exhibit the most ‘Googliness’. But when it comes down to it what does that actually mean?

This article will discuss:

  • Why are businesses favouring cultural fit over skills and experience?
  • How can we even define it?
  • If we must use it, how can it best be deployed?

Cultural fit

On the face of it it’s easy to see why as many as one in five businesses, including some market leaders, have adopted the concept of ‘cultural fit’. Most industry experts agree that it is a key element in the fight for staff retention. Hiring employees who on the face of it are a great catch when you look at their CV, may not work out if they don’t internalise the qualities required to feel part of the team. At Google they are looking for ‘intrapreneurs’ who promote innovation.

As one of Google’s Product Managers, Prem Ramswami, puts it; “It’s a Darwinian method for projects here. You have to evangelise, and sometimes people aren’t interested.” An intrapreneurial spirit is required. To exhibit Googliness a person must evangelise their ideas within the company, not all of which will be taken up. If that person can code like a dream but can’t work that way they’re unlikely to thrive and ultimately may just leave.

Fit culture?

Conveniently for Google, though not for our purposes here, they define Googliness as a “mashup of passion and drive that’s hard to define but easy to spot”. So they know it when they see it but can’t tell us what it is. If a company is going to hire this way it has to somehow define itself. Be that by decisive action from board level that maps out the way they wish to do things, or by the often more honest path of getting to know their own company from the floor up and either letting their departmental managers cut their cloth accordingly, or not, depending on whether they like what they discover.

It is when interviewers are left to define their own departmental culture that issues of homogeneity and discrimination can arise. There’s no point in pretending that harassment ridden ‘bro culture’ regimes don’t exist. We’ve all worked there at some point. And this will simply reproduce itself if that is the culture into which a candidate must fit. Research carried out by Professor Lauren Rivera of Northwestern University in the USA found that untrained interviewers often look for “potential friends and playmates” rather than those best qualified for the position. Essentially the danger with this practice is homogeneity in respect of, but not restricted to, race, gender, and socioeconomic background.

A culture that fits (everybody)

Cultural fit can have its uses by way of fostering a sense of shared purpose that new recruits feel fully invested in, but only if it’s done in the right way. Firstly, the office culture that already exists needs to be one that a company can be proud of. Secondly, issues of inherent bias by interviewers have to be addressed. Some companies try to ensure they have as diverse a selection panel as possible. Others such as Facebook, have an entire video course for its staff about managing unconscious bias.

But ultimately a company needs to be honest with itself about what its culture really is, before it can ask a person if they fit.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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