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What is a Cultural Fit?

Dec 27, 2021
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“You’re just not a good fit for the culture of our organization.” 

Employees on the receiving end of these fateful words are frequently left confused. Despite competence, experience, knowledge, and loyalty, something did not click with the executive leadership. The result: termination.

The same can be said for potential new hires who do their homework on the organization – and become drawn to that organization’s culture as a result – only to hear the fateful words at the end of the interview, or in a follow-up communication. The result: confused disappointment.


When did a cultural fit become a thing?

The idea of a cultural fit emerged as a significant concept in the 1980’s based on personality and values that connected with business strategy. It was assumed that a cultural fit would make people feel more connected at work resulting their desire for work hard with longer hours.

Over the past 30 years being a cultural fit has become a priority in hiring practices and employee evaluations. In one recent survey, over 80% of employers said they would hire for culture and train for skill. Today, the idea of being a cultural fit not only applies to potential new hires but extends to current employees of an organization. Consequently, being a cultural fit is something of an ongoing process that determines career success within an organization. 


How is a cultural fit defined?

Though organizational culture is rather nebulous, I defined it in a previous blog as the adhesive that holds everything together: an organization’s product or service, members, clients, customers, and various affiliates. From this definition, culture is not what an organization does, but how they do it. 

Consequently, the culture of an organization has a direct impact on its people, but equally true is the impact of people on the organization. The logical result of this dual impact is the focal point where each one intersects the other to decide whether someone is s cultural fit or not.  

Are your people unsticking the adhesive that holds everything together, or are they strengthening the adhesive? Termination or promotion are the natural conclusion. However, this logical summary about a cultural fit for current employees and new hires has become more fairytale than fact since the 1980’s.

Are shared experiences important?

Let me circle back to the statement I opened with, “You’re just not a good fit for the culture of our organization.” 

When the gatekeepers of an organization look for people who they would enjoy socializing with that could lead to a personal and close friendship, the idea of cultural fit is fairytale. Discovering shared experiences outside an organization in an interview for a job, or job evaluation, are one thing, but discovering shared experiences on the job is quite something else. The latter results in strengthening the adhesive we call culture. 

Discovering an employee or potential new hire enjoys the same movies, books, sporting activities and other recreational hobbies will make both parties feel warm and fuzzy, but is that the rise and fall of deciding whether someone is hired, fired, or promoted? 


What is the ideal team?

When difficult and complex decisions are made, diverse teams outweigh people on a team who are similar. It is relatively easy to mistake a sense of rapport for expertise or skill. When a candidate is selected for hire or an employee is identified for promotion based on a personal fit, the demographic for unbiased diversity will continue to plateau or decrease. It can also morph into a new form of discrimination in the name of personal fit at the cost of organizational culture.   

I have worked with great people and admire their skill, talent, ability, teamwork, passion, creativity, and much more; however, I would not necessarily choose to hang out with the same people outside of work or invite them to my home. When we mesh the people in our lives comprised of professional networks, colleagues, associates, partners, and friends, we erase crucial lines. For example, the first four relationships are largely transactional whereas the latter is something quite personal. I am not suggesting that one could not become the other. But I am suggesting that when warm and fuzzy become the epicenter of a cultural fit the ricochet effect lends itself to tit-for-tat issues that inevitably unstick the adhesive of culture that holds everything together.  


What needs to change?

One significant contributor to warm and fuzzy is the common practice of unstructured job interviews. The same can be said for most job performance evaluations. Are your people using tools for interpreting the results of an evaluation or is interpretation left to the subjective feelings of the evaluator?

Without training interviewers and evaluators, a typical path that both find themselves walking on is that of connection rather than fit. Like watching a competitive tv show involving cooking, fashion, makeup, or design, and it comes down to three finalists, who do the judges choose? The one who they personally connect with. 

Approaching potential new hires and current employees – consciously or unconsciously – with a like-me-like you attitude can become ripe for discrimination on who is hired, promoted, and fired in the name of a cultural fit. It can look like diversity but left unchecked it has the potential to become an exclusive homogeny. 

The result is cultural chaos!

Cultural Clarity will help you develop unbiased methods for interviewing potential new hires and evaluating current employees. Press here and book your call now.



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