Cactus Culture Hero

Hiring for Culture Fit, or a Conformist Culture?

Just about everyone involved in hiring for every role in every company agrees:

It’s important to find applicants who are a good cultural fit.

That said, some contend that it’s easy to overemphasize this piece of the hiring puzzle, ultimately and often unwittingly perpetuating a culture in which everyone looks, thinks, talks, and acts alike.

Talking about culture fit can be a slippery slope, says Lorrie Lykins, i4cp’s VP of Research and co-chair of its Talent Acquisition Board.

“’Culture fit’ means different things to different people, and in some instances is code for bias—when a hiring manager says that a candidate wasn’t ultimately offered the job because of ‘culture fit,’ we should challenge that explanation and dig deeper. What do we mean by that?” says Lykins.

Similarly, Patty McCord, former chief talent officer at Netflix, made this argument in Harvard Business Review last year:

“What most people really mean when they say someone is a good fit culturally is that he or she is someone they’d like to have a beer with,” wrote McCord.

But the newest addition to your team doesn’t have to be a hit at happy hour to excel at the job you’re hiring them for, says McCord.  

“This misguided hiring strategy can also contribute to a company’s lack of diversity, since very often the people we enjoy hanging out with have backgrounds much like our own.”

Fair point. But are we talking about a strictly either/or proposition when we weigh personality against good, old-fashioned proficiency?

Of course not. And it’s not unrealistic to seek new hires who will share the ethos of your organization and nail the technical parts of the job.

So how do you have it all in the hiring process?

Emphasizing culture add, not culture fit

If the hiring process includes discussion about culture fit, everyone involved should be on the same page in terms of what that phrase actually means. The focus ought to be on considering whether or not a candidate will be a culture add rather than a culture fit, according to members of the Talent Acquisition Board, says Lykins.

“The consensus among senior talent acquisition executives is that when we talk about candidates, we should approach it from the perspective of screening in rather than screening out.”

If ‘culture fit’ is a recurring theme, adds Lykins, it’s possible that hiring managers are consciously or unconsciously resistant to adding people to the team who will bring new ideas and perspectives and potentially shake things up a bit. If this is what’s happening, it needs to be addressed.

And it doesn’t have to be done at the expense of evaluating competencies and experience. That stuff’s still pretty important. As is ensuring diversity within your organization—diverse backgrounds, diverse skills, diverse thought.

Getting a sense of an applicant’s qualifications is the more straightforward part, of course. Education, experience, accomplishments—that’s all right there on the resume.

It’s the less direct tasks—like discerning whether a candidate is a culture add—that can give HR fits.

And it’s not going to get any easier, as companies continue to put more emphasis on building and nurturing a healthy culture.

The recent i4cp report, Culture Renovation: A Blueprint for Action, lays out a series of actions designed to create such an environment.

One of the first actions in this process—and one of the first steps toward finding and hiring people who will help foster a healthy culture—is to define the desired behaviors to support your organization’s ethos, and then provide training on those behaviors.

In i4cp’s culture renovation research, two-thirds of organizations that have had a successful culture renovation report providing leadership training at all levels on what these desired behaviors are and how to model them in their daily routines.

For example, this training can encompass:

  • Identifying and telling meaningful stories about the company’s new values and desired behaviors in action.
  • How to renovate and run a business at the same time, i.e., finding the right balance between focusing on executing this quarter’s objectives and building the culture for the future.

Finding culture carriers

Ideally, you already have plenty of employees who embody your organization’s values every day. Conducting an organizational network analysis (ONA)—which i4cp also recommends in its culture renovation report—helps find these employees, who can serve as valuable cultural ambassadors.

As i4cp points out in Culture Renovation, F5 Networks has used its own network analysis to build a culture community around “champions, conduits, and carriers.”

“Champions are the folks who are the eyes, ears, and mouthpieces of our culture in the field,” says Ana White, CHRO at the Seattle-based provider of application services and application delivery networking.

“They help to convey messages and they provide feedback on things like the barriers to the cultural behaviors. They also help the company think about the key employee moments and experiences that need attention, as well as guide us on how to incorporate the behaviors into non-HR processes and systems.”

To identify these champions, the organization analyzed recognition program data to pinpoint those who were held in high regard by colleagues, and to find employees who were leading efforts across F5.

“Culture conduits are those who have high interaction with employees and thus have an opportunity, due to the nature of their job, to convey the BeF5 behaviors,” says White. “For example, they could be HR operations folks who help with onboarding employees, or the Help Desk in IT who help employees when they’re in a pinch.”

These individuals interact with a cross-section of your employee base on a day-to-day basis, and it’s critical that they demonstrate these desired behaviors through their interactions, says White.

“Carriers are the leaders of the organization; employees look to them for examples of acceptable and desirable behaviors at an organization.”