How Important is Cultural Fit?

In recent times, the role of the interview has gone beyond simply assessing whether a candidate has the ability to do a specific job; increasing importance is being placed on the notion of ‘company culture’. Every organisation is expected to have one, which means interviews are now done with the aim of determining whether a candidate is a good ‘cultural fit’. But how important is it that new recruits are good cultural fits?

Before exploring this any further, it would be helpful to provide a definition of what ‘company culture’ actually is. F. John Reh, a senior business executive who writes for The Balance, says that company culture is the “shared values and practices of the company’s employees.” But this account seems too dependent on employees – after all, employees leave: does that mean that company culture leaves with them?

William Craig, founder and president of WebpageFX provides a more accurate definition, telling Forbes that company culture “is something that is pre-existing in your company’s genetic code; it’s not something that employees bring with them. In fact, a company with just one employee – a company with no employees, if we’re being honest – still has a culture. That sole proprietor? They’re the one with ‘vision, values, and assumptions.’ They don’t wait around for employees to provide such things; instead, they seek out those individuals who they feel would be a good match with their existing vision for the company.” An organisation’s culture will undoubtedly be affected by its employees, but a company with a strong company culture will retain its values regardless of its employees.

Having a strong culture is important because studies have shown that it can be the difference between a company succeeding and failing. Reh writes that, “Companies with an adaptive culture that is aligned to their business goals routinely outperform their competitors. Some studies report the difference at 200% or more.” Establishing “company vision, values, norms, systems, symbols, language, assumptions, beliefs, and habits”, as explained by Craig, is vital to achieving any business goal or plan.

Thus, it seems only natural that when recruiting, hiring managers seek individuals with ideals that will align with the cultural environment of the organisation. Adrian Furnham, organisational psychologist, management expert and UCL professor offers a helpful definition: “A [cultural] fit is where there is congruence between the norms and values of the organization and those of the person.” Failing to recruit individuals who can adapt to a company’s values and culture can be costly in relation to turnover (the Society for Human Resource Management calculates the cost to be 50-60% of an individual’s yearly salary), and it can also affect employee engagement, performance, productivity and cohesion.

Although recruitment trends tend to favour this notion of employing candidates that represent a good ‘cultural fit’, questions have been raised about the effect that this might have on diversity. It would be fair to assume that employing people who hold shared “values, norms, systems, symbols, language, assumptions, beliefs, and habits” could lead to a homogenous workforce. Concerned parties might argue that this could result in there being a lack of contrasting opinions, ideas and conversations, attracting individuals from the same background. At worst, there is even the potential for discrimination.

But Katie Bouton, writing for the Harvard Business Review vehemently argues otherwise. According to the development professional, the principles of organisational culture and cultural fit do not require all employees to be the same. Rather, company culture “can and should be reflected in a richly diverse workforce.” Using ‘collaboration’ as an example of an organisational value that recruiters might look for in potential candidates, Bouton says, “This doesn’t mean that only people who come from one particular background or have one particular set of experiences are collaborative. A savvy hiring manager knows that a deep-rooted belief in collaboration could just as easily be found in a candidate with a corporate background as a candidate who has worked in the non-profit sector or a candidate who has spent most of her career in the military.”

In the end, HR executives/directors and hiring managers must make the recruiting decisions that they believe are best for their company. A lot of times, this will involve hiring people who are great cultural fits. Other times, this could involve hiring someone who can disrupt ‘business as usual’ and bring some change to the company. Either way, employing someone who, at the very least, believes in your company’s goals and will do their absolute best to help realise them, is what matters most.

Written by

Cambridge University graduate and professional career sector writer.

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