Navigating “Cultural Fit”

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March 8, 2011
I have recently been working on an internal project around hiring trends in Indianapolis that has me pondering one of the key factors that really differentiates That’s Good HR from the "staffing world at large".   Cultural Fit – that obscure business buzzword that has become a requirement to filling most any Indianapolis job opening these days.  How do we begin to understand, identify and capture this vague requirement and then successfully match a person to said "culture"?  And why does it even matter so much?

On my quest for clarity, here is a bit of what I discovered:

One source that dates all the way back to 2007 still rings true with the following observation:

"In any size company, in almost any industry, in any location, culture plays a significant role in both attracting and keeping great talent. When hiring employees, hiring managers have a major responsibility to ensure that each person they “invite to the card game” and introduce into their group has been effectively screened for both their ability to perform their job and their cultural fit within the organization."

This post makes an analogy of cultural fit as it compares the concept to the weekly "poker game" where a set group of acquaintances gather regularly to play cards and where there is a mutual understanding of the rules and the expected behavior.  When someone new joins the group, they too must understand the environment, the expectations, the rules AND they have to be willing and interested in joining under the terms of the "culture".  Without agreement on both sides, the relationship is doomed. 

This is where I think people get confused about cultural fit.  It is not a one way street where the company picks the candidate who passes the "cultural fit" test.  Many times, it is the candidate who picks the company based upon their personal cultural fit requirements.  So, where do we go wrong most of the time?  It is when you find the ideal candidate with the perfect skill set and experience and you alter your representation of the culture in order to fit the peg into the hole.  The match is made, the employee comes to work and within a month, both parties wonder why it is not working out and many times, part on not such good terms.  Money, time and energy wasted based on an avoidable mistake.

As a hiring company, you should never design the story around your culture based on what the perfect candidate wants to hear and job candidates should never sacrifice their own cultural requirements just to get the job unless they plan to live in harmony with the consequences.  Compromise is a short term fix to the problem – the company gets a qualified person to fill a seat and the candidate gets a job.  Long term, everyone loses and usually at a very high cost on both ends.

There is a great post on Fistful of Talent that does a colorful job of illustrating this point.  This post takes a "tongue in cheek" look at the reality of what cultural fit means by taking a look at hiring for the DMV.  While I am not in agreement of the full analogy, the story it tells is compelling.  Here is what they have to say:

"Cultural Fit is hard to describe for most folks. A company can have a culture that most observers say is “good,” but that doesn’t mean that all qualified candidates will be a good fit. And if you’re looking for an organization that gets hiring for cultural fit perfectly? I would suggest looking at… nope, not Netflix, not Google, not Target… look at your local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Surprised?  Think about it for a second."

At That’s Good HR, we have developed a knack for understanding the culture of the company, department or office where our candidates are going to potentially be working BEFORE we even take the first step in making the match.  It is not rocket science, although we would like to believe that it is an acquired and very valuable skill.  It is not magic, but there is some mystery and intuition that goes into developing both customer AND candidate relationships to the level of being able to really "get it" when it comes to understanding the culture.  Working with placing candidates in federal government positions, this becomes critically important so we have spent years developing a true understanding of the culture and we are constantly reviewing our understanding to keep it current and relevant.

To further illustrate the impact of understanding cultural fit in the workplace, it is interesting to note that one of the most relevant articles I found in my research on this topic is global…this one comes from Australia and it is very applicable right here in the US.  I encourage you to take a look at the business case it offers…good stuff.

At the end of the day (another key overused business buzz phrase) be true to yourself, as cliche as that might sound. If you choose not to, as the client or the candidate, be ready to maintain the facade for as long as you want the relationship to stay alive….sounds a little like dating, doesn’t it?