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What Thanksgiving Teaches Us About the Importance of Culture Fit

by Nov 19, 2012, 6:28 am ET

I have spoken numerous times about both the benefits and the potential detriments of using cultural fit in the hiring process. On one side many hiring managers measure candidates by cultural fit believing that candidates will stay longer if they gel well with their organization’s work environment. Others argue that cultural fit provides hiring managers an excuse to discriminate and dissuades diversity in the workplace which studies show leads to a greater flow of ideas and creativity.

A recent survey published in Forbes indicates that in an effort to increase workforce attrition, 88% of employers are looking for cultural fit over skills in their next hire.

They believe cultural fit is so important because most executives understand that a bad hire can cost between two and three times that departing employee’s salary and so hiring an employee who works and plays well with others is more important than if they are the most skilled to do the job. The theory is that if the employee likes their manager and colleagues, they will be happier and stay longer. If you’re from a big family like I am, at least on my in-laws’ side, you easily recognize the significance of cultural fit, especially when it comes to deciding who to sit next to at the dinner table.

You visit your family or your in-laws on Thanksgiving Day and the moment you walk into that crowded living room your body deflates as you realize who made it to dinner and with whom you might need to talk.  Things aren’t any different in the workplace with colleagues whom you have no genetic predisposition to like. If you’re unable to get along with your in-laws or even your own family, how much harder might it be to work well with those who you don’t even like?

Am I discriminating with my family? Sure and I am not afraid to say so. Let me take you around the room as I evaluate a few of the people sitting in front of the television and decide who I want to avoid at dinner.

The first one to catch my eye is my wife’s grandfather. He looks weary as he squints at the television and holds his cane in his right hand. Sure he’s a nice guy, but the age gap leaves us with few things to discuss over cranberry sauce and after five minutes of catching up we will do little more than annoyingly bump elbows. The elderly seem to have their own little clique and would rather hang with each other anyway.

There’s my wife’s cousin and her odd husband whose name I often forget because he rarely shows up to any events and spends most of his time outside smoking. He doesn’t really fit in with the family as most of us prefer to bathe daily and wear shirts during the holidays that don’t appear satanic in origin. He wants to sit with me about as much as I with him. Our cubicles probably shouldn’t be next to one another.

Ah, wonderful — I see another cousin has made their way up from Georgia. He’s a great guy but often can’t go two minutes without pounding the table and uproariously laughing at his own jokes. Only if I can start drinking early will I sit by him.

There’s Aunt Beula (names have been altered to protect the obese) looking sassy and out of breath in her bright purple sweater. Every holiday she discusses the new diet she’s sure not to follow and wonders why she can’t lose weight as she simultaneously crams mounds of both chocolate and pumpkin pie into her mouth. She’s a great person but I’d rather talk football — or even, gasp, business — than recipes. When the family breaks to play an outdoor game with the kids, she merrily remains on the sidelines.

Ah, there’s brother-in-law, Rob! Once we get past talking movies we still have football and other sports about which to talk. When we run out of hot topics there’s always his family we can ridicule. This is the guy I am speaking with at the water cooler in the workplace. This is the person with whom I’d want to go on a business trip.

I’m not the only one during events who is this selective. We all look around and gravitate toward those with whom we best get along. At the end of the evening, if I’m not having a good time, I can simply leave with little detriment to the gathering. However, if I leave an organization after a few months because I’m not having fun, they lose a bit more than just my idle chatter. They now have to pay someone to find a replacement. They lose productivity during my absence and they may have to train the new guy that comes on board.

So while I may have been adequately skilled to do the job my lack of cultural fit with a pod of Aunt Beulahs or gaggle of greasy, creepy metal heads, has forced me to reconsider my employment with the organization. That’s going to end up costing you a wing and a leg!

Happy Thanksgiving!

photo from the Salvation Army website

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  • Martin Snyder

    Its a light hearted analogy, but if its true that 88% of employers are looking for cultural fit over skills in their next hire, 90% of what we do in Recruiting is focused on the unimportant stuff.

    I have maintained for years that individual assessment of candidates without reference to the intended workgroup is bound to be limited in usefulness to the only the most rote roles, large scale roles.

    Top recruiters are ethnographers first and foremost.

    Switching tribes is something hard-wired into human nature and it aint as simple as it sounds….

  • http://www.leadershipblueprint.biz John McCormack

    Very witty and illustrative analogy. This is the stuff that goes on all day at the workplace. People like to associate with … and hire … people who remind them of themselves. This is what often generates that “gut feel” that this is the right person for the job and becomes the deciding factor.

    Quite often a valuable employee leaves or a highly qualified candidate is turned away simply because “we didn’t hit it off …. we didn’t connect …”, etc., when the real reason is because the personalities of the boss and his report, or the hiring manager and the candidate, are quite different. What’s missing is an understanding of interpersonal dynamics to help overcome those differences.

    Any leader would be doing him/herself a favor by learning first about themselves at a deeper level. Only then can you hope to understand someone else at the level necessary for a quality and profitable hiring decision.

  • Todd Raphael

    In theory I get the idea of “fit” — if someone is ultra-competitive, maybe a highly collaborative, non-competitive, non-cuthroat workplace isn’t a fit. But in practice, I think sometimes fit is determined not by good assessments but by the Thanksgiving sort of way you’re talking about — perhaps too quickly, superficially. I mean, sometimes you think you will like a new coworker or employee based on a gut feeling about fit, but then over time if they’re not a good employee, that annoys you enough that you don’t like working with them. The “fit” you thought you saw was really a gut reaction based on your assumptions, perhaps unfair, about their personality, and the real and lasting fit is whether they’d make a good employee.

    Similarly, I think judging that someone doesn’t fit in can say more about the judge than the person who allegedly doesn’t fit. In other words, if I’ve decided that Rob or Aunt Beula has nothing in common with me, or isn’t cool, isn’t funny, isn’t nice, isn’t interesting, is too old or young, has kids of different ages than me, a different profession – than it’s me, not them, perhaps who’s at fault. If I take an interest in Rob or Aunt B, ask them about themselves, their job, kids, chocolate diet, etc. — I just may find that they, like all people, are interesting and that I have something to talk to them about.

  • http://www.hire-intelligence.com/blog/ Ryder Cullison

    I would first like to thank everyone so far for their comments.

    Using the statistic I provided above regarding 88% of hiring managers choosing for cultural fit over skills, I think we can first assume that the candidates they are looking at are qualified for the most part to do the job. But now they have let’s say 3 equally qualified candidates in front of them. Which one do they choose? To say they must pick the one with the most experience may be a bit unwise. At this point picking the candidate that best fits the culture of the organization seems like the safest bet to them.

    While I support cultural fit, I do not necessarily sponsor the use of the 5 minute gut reaction rule. As Todd points out I may find I have a great deal in common with those I invest more than 5 minutes learning about.

    I use the analogy above merely to demonstrate why such bias occurs during the hiring cycle. We all feel more comfortable with some types of people vs. others and this shows even at our own family gatherings. I do however feel for the sake of diversity and for the benefit of the company, that hiring managers need to step outside their comfort zone and take more chances on skilled employees not cut from the quite same cultural cloth.

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  • http://www.sparkhire.com Josh Tolan

    Really good point about how hiring for cultural fit is like Thanksgiving. Just like Thanksgiving, you’re going to want to sit next to the person you can have the most interesting (and least annoying) conversation with. If you put your 80-year-old grandmother next to your heavy metal loving cousin, it’s likely neither will be very happy. Similarly, when hiring you’re going to want to find people who are going to fit into the company culture and enjoy their time at the table. When interviewing, whether in person or through online video, make sure you focus on organizational fit so you don’t hire employees who will leave dinner early.

  • http://www.imomentous.com Sylvester Pascal

    Thanks Ryder. Thats a very good analogy. Comparing hiring for cultural fit to thanks giving is a brilliant point. Top companies prefer hiring people who are going to fit into the company culture and enjoy their time. For example Google has a Airport test where they hire people whom they think will not only be a good fit for the company but also will mingle well with other employees.
    http://blog.imomentous.com/

  • Keith Halperin

    IMHO: it is vital (that if you are working in close physical proximity with someone) that you hire someone who you feel that you can work with for an extended period of time. However, I think the standard shouldn’t be “will this person become my friend?” but “will this person drive me crazy?”… This is also a further argument for maximizing telecommuting…

    Finally:
    You non-Americans out there- what do your companies/countries do? Maybe you can teach us a thing or two…

    Cheers,

    Keith “…” Halperin

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  • Gretchen Frampton

    What if we dig into “culture fit” a bit more? There’s the version presented in the article – fit meaning who I get along with. This is the gut feel, the “I like him because he’s like me”. This doesn’t leave the team/organization open to diversity. And diversity can generate significantly greater results. But even diverse candidates must be evaluated against the company culture – to ensure HOW the candidate gets things done aligns with how the company does things. This version of culture fit can be evaluated against more structured criteria – a company’s competencies. As an example, a person used to relying on structure and hierarchy to get things done won’t succeed in an organization that works flatly. Collaboration to them will result in stagnation and frustration.

    Just a thought.