4 Reasons to Stop Hiring for Culture Fit (and One Reason to Start)

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Jul 31, 2020

Scientific research shows that one of the best ways to increase employee motivation and job performance, and reduce burnout and stress, is to align people’s inherent style, values, and interests to their work environment.  That means hiring people who are a natural or obvious match for a given job, team, or organization. This explains why many organizations have shifted from hiring for skills to hiring for culture-fit, signaling a strong desire to welcome like-minded candidates to your firm. 

However, there are four problematic consequences with this approach:

1. Culture Fit Is Bad for Diversity

If your definition of a strong candidate is someone who thinks, feels, and acts like the status quo, then don’t expect much diversity. Hiring for culture fit will work well in a cult (note that is also the root of culture), but it will seriously handicap your ability to build a diverse team and organization.

For instance, when managers hire based on their own image, they end up with homogeneous teams in which consensus and groupthink trump curiosity and creativity. It is, of course, always easier to manage people who think like you, but this defeats the purpose of teams. 

Even more problematically, when organizations hire leaders who fit right in, they should not expect much change, innovation, or progress. No leader is hired to “keep things as they are,” but this is exactly what you get when you hire replicas of your current leaders (apart from middle-age white men). 

This doesn’t mean that you should hire total misfits as leaders, as they will end up disrupting themselves rather than the business. It does, however, make the case for hiring moderate misfits.

2. Culture Fit Is Bad for Inclusion

Although organizations still struggle with diversity, a bigger challenge is building an inclusive culture. As a ManpowerGroup study of over 200 leaders cross 25 countries revealed, the key to making diversity work is to create a culture where conscious inclusion is the norm — so that women, minorities, and underrepresented groups are not just “tolerated” but also valued and celebrated for their unique contributions.

Hiring for culture fit is a form of unconscious bias at best, not least when this strategy is deployed by the same companies that seem committed to improving diversity and inclusion. And it’s a form of conscious exclusion at worst: “This is us, and if you are not like us, don’t bother coming here.”

3. Culture Fit Breeds Incompetence

It takes competence to spot and stop incompetence. This is one of the main explanations for the pervasive nature of poor leadership in both politics and business. That is, when those who are in charge are unable or unwilling to change things (including who’s in charge!), they will hire and promote people like themselves.

Indeed, bad leadership is parasitic, so toxic and inept bosses multiply and thrive like bacteria does in contaminated environments. This makes hiring for culture fit an amplifier, making good cultures better (at least in the short-term) and bad cultures worse. For instance, consider the common underrepresentation of women in leadership ranks: What incentive do male leaders have to change this, particularly when they are not there because of actual merit?  

4. Culture Fit Demands Culture Awareness That Is Lacking

Hiring for culture fit requires a good understanding of your own culture, which most organizations lack. This is why if you look at their websites, they all look alike. They all seem to value diversity, innovation, social corporate responsibility, and executing for results. But ask employees to describe their company culture and you will see a very different picture.

That picture will reflect a great deal of diversity between organizations’ culture, which is what climate surveys or engagement surveys pick up when they crowdsource companies’ personality through reliable ratings. David Bowie once noted that he is only what “the greatest number of people think” he is, and the same applies to companies. Culture is best measured in terms of the experiences most people have when they work there.   

In short, the only logical reason to hire for culture fit is if your culture is truly inclusive and diverse to begin with. But in that case, you may as well hire for cultural misfit. The outcome will remain the same. 

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