Why Hiring for "Culture Fit" Hurts Your Culture

11 June 2015 by Mathias Meyer

There's a term which in the sense of hiring (and firing), is more loaded than anything else. I'm talking about the culture fit.

A recent post on the Lighthouse blog (a product I'm actively using and that I'm a big fan of, by the way!) states that not checking for culture fit is one of the eight interview mistakes that cost you great candidates.

The post brings up the most peculiar example in this regard, a company culture of drinking (disclaimer: I've been a non-drinker for more than 16 years now). If your company has a culture of heavy drinking, then you can be sure as hell that someone like me will neither fit nor want to fit into that culture.

Startup culture in particular is known for their silent rituals and expectations on new hires. If a mum or dad can't go out to a bar at night, that's a thumbs-down, right? After all, they're not willing to socialize, and your company is like a family. A family that drinks together to create and maintain bonds.

The word culture fit continues to be thrown around both as reasons not to hire someone and to fire someone. It's a simple explanation, and it should be clear to anyone on the team (and the person affected) why they're not a culture fit, right?

There's one fundamental mistake in both using and looking for culture fit as a means for hiring: You're assuming that your current culture is healthy and doesn't need to be changed.

Using culture fit as a reason to fire or not to hire says more about you than it says about them. It says that you're not willing to dig deep and figure out what exactly you think doesn't match in your expectation and a candidates personality. It shows that your culture is a fixed property of your company and team, one that can't be changed, one that is exactly where you want it to be.

Culture fit is a reason to continue maintaining the status quo.

But let's take it one step at a time.

What is culture?

Culture fit is a loaded word, because the word culture has so many possible definitions. There are a lot of layers in your company.

It's safe to assume that culture is represented by your company's and team's values. If you've poured lots of work into those, then you have a good definition of your team's expected behaviour.

But culture goes beyond that. Culture is what happens at your company every day. Culture includes founders buying themselves expensive cars from a secondary investment.

Culture includes silent expectations like going to socialization events in evenings, like drinking at bars, dinners and other company events. No one wants to put those on job ads, right?

Culture is how you write and phrase your job ads. Culture is whether you're looking for rock stars or want to build a great team and help people grow. Culture is how you pay your people. Culture is how a CEO behaves towards their team and in public. Culture is how leadership fosters and drives change. Culture is how you treat your customers. Culture is how you treat your team. Culture is how open you are to changing the status quo. Culture is a team that only consists of white dudes in their late twenties.

Culture is that ping pong table in your office. Culture are all those free and unhealthy soft drinks that your company keeps in the fridge. Culture is serving your team breakfast or lunch (or both?) every day to make sure they're in the office for as long as possible. Culture is talking about commitment issues when someone on your team needs to leave early because they have children to take care of.

Everything you do every day, in your company and team, is part of your culture.

If your assumption is that no one should be able to be a part of that and that it's written in stone and cannot be changes, then by all means, hire or fire based on culture fit.

Culture fit is a means to keep people out of a protected and privileged circle, rather than to protect that circle's values, which is probably what you think it is..

Culture fit is a means to avoid talking about whether your culture is healthy and whether it needs to be improved, and most importantly, to avoid actively changing and improving it.

Stop using "culture fit"

If culture fit isn't a reason for not hiring someone or firing someone, then what is?

Culture fit is a loaded word because it can have so many meanings, it can apply on so many layers of your company. Using it means you want to spend little time on figuring out where exactly someone isn't a good match for your own expectations and why those expectations exist.

The best way to avoid falling into the culture fit trap is to have an honest look at why someone doesn't match your expectations. Did they not match implicit or explicit expectations? If they're implicit, are they really a part of your company culture? If they are, why are they not explicit?

If socializing over drinks is an expectation you have, then you should be honest enough to make it an explicit expectation. Or, if you want my advice, you should revisit why and whether it's such an important part of your culture.

Because I can tell you right here, making it explicit will help keep even more people out of your precious circle. Parents, people of religion who don't drink, non-drinkers. You can be sure that those people will never be part of your team, and that your team will continue to attract the same kind of people that are already a part of it.

"Culture fit" hampers the biggest benefit of any great team: diversity. Stop using it and start looking at the real reasons why you don't want to hire someone. They might not be their flaws but yours.

Tags: culture
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