Does hiring for “cultural fit” really work?

Lately, I have received many questions regarding whether hiring for “cultural fit” works. Or, is hiring for “fit” the lazy way to hire?  Even worse, does it lead to discrimination in hiring decisions?

Hiring for “cultural fit” began in the 1980s with companies such as Southwest Airlines. Southwest decided to hire staff that would be good team players and cabin crews willing to have fun with passengers. Business books in the 1980s such as Theory Z, and Corporate Cultures pointed out that many mainstream American companies were losing their competitive edge to Japanese counterparts. These books advocated constructing corporate values that would shape their company cultures and workforce strategies, and improve their productivity.  Today, companies, such as Zappos and Google, proclaim the benefits of hiring for cultural fit.

I have worked for two companies, Honeywell and Medtronic, where hiring for “cultural fit” were important considerations, although both companies had dramatically different cultures.  Honeywell emphasized a hard-driving, share-holder equity culture. Medtronic emphasized a collaborative, relationship-based culture dedicated to Medtronic’s mission statement to “contribute to human welfare by the application of biomedical engineering to alleviate pain, restore health and extend life.”

Does hiring for cultural fit work? Does it have other unintended effects such as group think, a lack of innovation, and discriminatory hiring practices?

Most certainly, hiring for cultural fit works well when done well! Culture is the glue that holds organizations together, and empirical research demonstrates this[i]. Cultural fit is a key trait to look for when recruiting, developing, rewarding and promoting talent. The potential downside of hiring for cultural fit is that it may create homogeneous workforces that are unable recognize the lead indicators of new trends. Employees may get used to the tried and true and fail to innovate. Empirical research shows that diverse workforces lead to higher levels of innovation and financial performance when organizations are high tech, knowledge based, high complexity, global, or operate in multi-cultural markets.  (For more on the impact of diversity on financial performance and innovation, see my blog “Does Demographic Diversity Lead to More Innovation?”)

Katherine Klien, vice dean of the Wharton Social Impact Initiative, says that cultural fit is “an incredibly vague term, often based on gut instinct. The biggest problem is that while we invoke cultural fit as a reason to hire someone, it is far more common to use it to not hire someone.”[ii]

Lauren A. Rivera wrote an article for The New York Times about her direct experience as a recruiter in a top investment bank, and her research after interviewing 120 hiring decision makers. She observed that, while resumes influenced who made it into the interviews, the interviewers’ perceptions about cultural fit strongly influenced who received job offers.  “Critically, though, for these gatekeepers, fit was not about a match with organizational values. It was about personal fit. In these time-and-team-intensive jobs, professionals at all levels of seniority reported wanting to hire people with whom they enjoyed hanging out and could foresee developing close relationships. Fit was different from the ability to get along with clients. Fundamentally, it was about interviewers’ personal enjoyment and fun. To judge fit, interviewers commonly relied on chemistry.”[iii]

Does hiring for cultural fit lead to discriminatory practices?

Many recent articles have surmised that hiring for cultural fit may lead to discriminatory practices[iv].  All too often, hiring for fit is done poorly, more for a personality or common experience fit, rather than a fit of the company’s true culture. Although there is a lot of empirical evidence that has pointed out discriminatory hiring practices, such as screening out candidates with racially or ethnically diverse names,[v] I have not found any large empirical studies or meta-analysis linking hiring for cultural fit to discrimination. (If you know of such a study, please let me know!) There are small-sample studies which do demonstrate that hiring for cultural fit leads to excluding candidates which fit certain demographics, such as recent immigration status[vi].

(For U.S. based readers, it is important to note that in the United States, one of the charters for the U.S. Department of Labor is to investigate charges of work place discrimination and to conduct audits of government contractors to assure work place discrimination does not occur by age, race, sex (including pregnancy and gender identity), color, national origin (which includes immigrants with a legal right to work in the United States), ethnicity, disability, religion, or being a veteran. I have it on good authority that these investigations, when triggered can be long and drawn out affairs, and will investigate every angle of your hiring, promotion and pay practices. They can last for years, and they frequently lead to a finding of discrimination. It is a wise precaution to make sure your hiring, promotion and pay practices are not discriminatory.)

How to successfully hire for cultural fit.

When hiring for cultural fit, make sure you have clear organizational values, and good structured interview questions to use as a guide. It’s important that you not allow interviewers to hire based on their own personality fit, or common experience fit. It takes analytics to correctly identify the values of your organization, not what the last CEO plastered on every conference room wall.

Here’s a test to make sure your “cultural fit” hiring drives value and is not discriminatory:

  1. Do you use structured interviews? Are your interviews based on the organization’s values and the role and attributes of the job in question? Do not allow hiring managers to hire based on a first impression or an unstructured, 20-minute interview. For cultural fit, ask questions that will elicit responses from the candidates on their preferred work culture. Questions such as:
    1. What was your favorite work environment and why?
    2. What was your worst work environment and why?
    3. Who was your best boss? What made this person the best?
    4. Who was your worst boss? What made this person the worst?
    5. Why do you want to work here?
    6. What has been your greatest career achievement and why?
    7. What has been your biggest career failure and why? What did you learn from it?
  1. Do you use objective, measures of required attributes for every job opening, such as job knowledge or work sampling? Empirical research shows that validated measures improve selection success.[vii] These attributes can be assessed by carefully constructed structured interview questions, tests, and work sampling. If you use a test, it should be validated for reliability and accuracy, and checked over time to see that it does not lead to discrimination.
  1. Do you measure the results of your job candidate screening, including its impact on diversity? Any organization that is serious about hiring and keeping top talent should use analytics in its hiring process. If you don’t, you are using “middle ages” hiring practices. I am not talking about measures like “days open per job requisition, new hire turnover in one year, or the cost of recruiting.” These are all are good, but very basic. Instead, I am talking about the sourcers of your best hires, and the attributes of successful candidates after two years of job performance. Every time I have worked with an organization to implement recruiting analytics, it has uncovered previously unknown best sources of top talent and candidate attributes. Recruiting analytics usually improved the diversity of the job candidates and the workforce!
  1. Do you require more than the hiring manager’s decision? Whom you hire is one of the most important decisions a company can make. Branding, recruiting and hiring are expensive. I recommend that you use trained hiring teams to make this important decision—not just the hiring manager.

What has been your experience with hiring for cultural fit? Join the discussion.

Victor Assad is the CEO of Victor Assad Strategic Human Resources Consulting and is a Managing Partner of InnovationOne.US. He consults on talent management, leadership development and coaching, innovation, and other strategic initiatives. Please e-mail Victor at victorassad6@gmail.com or visitwww.victorhrconsultant.com. For innovation visit www.InnovationOne.US.

[i] Amy L. Kristof-Drown, Ryan D. Zimmerman, Erin C. Johnson, (2005) “Consequences of Individuals’ Fit at Work: A Meta-Analysis of Person-Job, Person-Organization, Person-Group, and Person-Supervisor fit,” Personal Psychology, (58, pages 281-342). Found at: http://nreilly.asp.radford.edu/kristof-brown%20et%20al.pdf.

[ii] “Is Culture Fit a Qualification for Hiring or a Disguise for Bias?” (July 16, 2015) Knowledge @ Wharton. Found at http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/cultural-fit-a-qualification-for-hiring-or-a-disguise-for-bias/

[iii] Lauren A. Rivera (May 30, 105) “Guess Who Doesn’t Fit In at Work?” The New York Times. Found at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/31/opinion/sunday/guess-who-doesnt-fit-in-at-work.html.

[iv] Tristin K. Green, (May 2005) “Work Culture and Discrimination,” California Law Review, Vol. 93. No. 3. Berkeley Law Scholarship Repository.  Found at: file:///C:/Users/VictorAssad/Desktop/Work%20Culture%20and%20Discrimination.pdf.

[v] I reference several studies here: Bertrand, Marianne, and Sendhil Mullainathan. 2004. “Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination.” American Economic Review, 94(4): 991-1013. DOI: 10.1257/0002828042002561. Found athttps://www.aeaweb.org/articles.php?doi=10.1257/0002828042002561.  Nancy Ditomaso (May 5, 2013) “How Social Networks Drive Black Unemployment,” The New York Times. Found athttp://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/05/05/how-social-networks-drive-black-unemployment/?_r=0. Miguel A. Quinones, (August 23, 20110, 2:28PM) “Getting More Hispanics to The Top,” Forbes. Found athttp://www.forbes.com/2010/08/23/hispanic-cox-school-leadership-citizenship-training.html.

[vi] Hege Hoivik Bye, Jori Gytre Hoverak, Gro Mjeldheim Sandal, and David Lackland Sam, “Cultural fit and ethnic background in the job interview,” (April, 2014) DOI 10.1177/14/70595813491237, International Journal of Cross Cultural Management, Vol. 14. No. 1. Pages 7-26.  Found at: http://ccm.sagepub.com/content/14/1/7.abstract.

[vii] Frank L. Schmidt and John E. Hunter. (1988) “The Validity and Utility of Selection Methods in Personnel Psychology: Practical and Theoretical Implications of 85 Years of Research Findings.” Psychological Bulletin, Vol 124, No. 2, 262-274. Copyright 1998 by the American Psychological Association, Inc. 0033-2909/98/.

 

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