Opinion: Why hiring on 'cultural fit' could be all wrong

Instead of hiring (and firing) for cultural fit, work out what behaviours you need and then focus on promoting them
Opinion: Why hiring on 'cultural fit' could be all wrong
Environment: Majority of hiring managers believe that candidates are less likely to leave when working for an organisation where they are a good cultural fit
By Dawn Metcalfe
Thu 15 Aug 2019 02:30 PM

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the need to ‘hire for cultural fit’ or sometimes for ‘attitude rather than aptitude’. The idea is that it’s relatively easy to train people on functional skills (aptitude) but much harder to do so when it comes to ‘soft’ or ‘business’ skills which are often seen as the result of personality (attitude). In fact, 90 percent of employers recognise the importance of hiring candidates which are a good ‘cultural fit’, according to professional recruitment specialists Robert Walters.

So let’s start by looking at what we mean by culture. My favourite definition and one that is widely used is the very simple: “The way we do things around here”. In other words, our culture is reflected in and reflects the amalgamation of all the behaviours of all the people in an organisation. It shows up in and is shared up by all the decisions we make every day. It is signalled by what we talk about, and the stories we tell explain and reinforce the culture we want.

Culture isn’t a static thing. It needs to change depending on what the organisation is trying to achieve and the situation it finds itself in. No single culture is ever going to be perfect and remain so. Although given that change is consistent, some behaviours are, I’d agree, crucial. So instead of hiring (and firing) for cultural fit, work out what behaviours you need and then focus with laser-like precision on promoting these. Shout out the behaviours that help you achieve your goals. Without fail. Do it constantly and consistently.

And, simultaneously, decide which behaviours are ‘red lines’, decide on appropriate responses and call out these behaviours. Again, without fail and constantly and consistently.

If we focus on cultural fit we run the risk of simply hiring more people like us, even when we try not to

Over time people will understand that there are things we do and don’t do in this organisation. It’s too easy to ignore culture as something ambiguous and hard to measure and turn our attention to something else, particularly when it’s hard to define. This isn’t helpful for employee retention or the bottom line: the same Robert Walters study reported that nearly three quarters of professionals in the Middle East have left a job because they disliked the company culture. If we think of it as behaviours, it becomes clear this needs to be managed at all levels as the largest input to success or failure. Assuming basic functional skills are present, then culture is the only game in town.

If managing culture means deciding on and managing a set of behaviours we promote and punish (to various degrees) depending on what we want to achieve, it stands to reason that the most important steps after deciding what you want, is deciding what behaviours will always be valuable.

What behaviours will we always want?

Given change is a constant and the pace of change is only likely to increase as technology finds its way into ever more far-reaching parts of the jobs we do, we’d argue the ability to: manage change well; work productively with others; challenge the status quo; persuade others; understand quickly; negotiate successfully; take risks and make decisions will remain important.

What, exactly, these look like in your organisation is what you need to decide. And you need to get specific because the devil is in the detail. It is these behaviours you are going to use as criteria when making decisions – you have to live by them, and use them at all opportunities to send a message.

So how can we hire for behaviours?

Know what you want and how much you want it

Ask yourself what your goals are and what specific behaviours you need to see in the people you hire. You’ll need to be giving lots of examples and stories to illustrate your points.

Be real about your goals: if you’re in an industry that doesn’t need or want 90 percent of your people to speak up, then don’t pretend otherwise. If your goal is far away from your reality, be real about the need for a journey to get there and the likelihood of some bumps along the way. How committed are you?

Send signals, mindfully

We’re always sending signals. It’s not just about who you hire and how you do that. There are many cultural leverage points. As you hire, track, develop, manage, communicate and ultimately part ways with each employee, you have an opportunity to send signs and are in fact doing so whether you mean to or not. Consider what messages you want to convey consistently and constantly and then think about the opportunities to do this.

And then focus consistently and constantly

Very few organisations will say they want a culture where people don’t, for example, feel comfortable speaking up and raising problems or challenging ideas. And yet, way too often, we hear from individuals and teams who say, for whatever reason, that type of culture doesn’t exist in their workplace.

Do we really want people who will just fit in? Instead we want people who can contribute to debate, learn from others and persuade people to join forces in pursuit of a common goal

So what’s happening? Experience suggests that culture is not seen as something that’s owned (in different ways and with different expectations) by everyone in the organisation. It’s not regularly and routinely alluded to when making decisions or explaining actions. In contrast, companies where leaders (at all levels) are expected to explain their reasoning – and the decisions of more senior people – do better when asked about their perceived leadership skills and authenticity.

Ultimately, humans bring themselves to work and with them comes all their complexities. We don’t want to hire for just one aspect of that. And by focusing on ‘cultural fit’ we run that risk. If we focus on cultural fit we run the risk of simply hiring more people like us, even when we try not to. This may feel comfortable and safe. But it’s scary when we consider that change isn’t just inevitable, it’s vital.

Change is the one challenge faced by all industries and by all organisations. Particularly as the world evolves and the functional skills will be increasingly (even if we don’t know when or how exactly) performed in ways we can’t imagine, impacting how we all work.

Do we really want people who will just fit in? Instead we want people who can contribute to debate, learn from others and persuade people to join forces in pursuit of a common goal.

If we focus on behaviours that support goals like this we can shape culture to get what we really want.


Dawn Metcalfe, workplace culture advisor and managing director of PDSi

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