From Cultural Fit to Cultural Fitness

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Jul 21, 2021

The search for “cultural fit” plays a very important role in recruitment and selection — all kinds of tests are used to ensure cultural fit, while excellent candidates are not invited due to a presumed lack of it. That’s why it’s time to say goodbye to the concept of culture fit. It needlessly excludes talented people and makes organizations weaker. 

Culture Fit Is No Key to Success  

Culture plays a key role in the overall health of your company, your people, and your external stakeholders. Because it directly affects productivity and performance, it is one of the pillars of organizational success. 

So not surprisingly, recruiters and hiring managers look critically at whether a candidate’s way of thinking and acting and the person’s values fit the organization’s culture. 

Unfortunately, companies often fail to clearly define such culture fit criteria. Additionally, they apply the concept too subjectively and overly strictly. Many even reject candidates based on their CVs based solely on assumptions related to culture fit.

For example, think of someone who wants to make a transition from profit to non-profit, or from a corporate environment to a small business or startup. Undoubtedly there will be differences when moving to a new environment, but is that really an obstacle?

That was obviously a rhetorical question. A strict application of cultural fit as a selection criterion comes down to the assumption that more of the same is better for the organization, but this is the very antithesis of diversity and inclusion. As such, it does not strengthen the company. 

Solving First-Year Turnover by Focusing on Culture Fit?

When a global company wanted to reduce high turnover in the first year of employment, it decided to focus on culture-fit ensure that they would hire the right — or “right” — people. 

Indeed, the company determined that the extra attention to culture would reduce turnover, but would it make the organization stronger, more resilient, more customer focused? Or would a different approach have a better impact. For instances, was selection the real problem or was it perhaps poor onboarding? Maybe assimilating new hires into the company’s culture could better solve retention problems.

All of which is to say that selecting on the basis of cultural fit might help to reduce the costs of the turnover in the short-term, but it would not be likely to benefit the organization in the longer term. Moreover, it would also greatly reduce the pool of candidates in an already tight labor market. 

Opposite Values: Opportunity or Threat?

It’s important to keep in mind that opposing values between employer and candidate need not be a concern for potential problems. Rather, they can complement one another. For instance, flexibility benefits from stability and vice versa. Just think of the Chinese concept of yin and yang.

An organization will become stronger and more resilient if it knows how to leverage the power of such differences. As Joel Peterson, former chairman of JetBlue, once put it, “Hiring ‘yourself’ is the number one mistake to make.” He further adds: “You want to work with a group of people who challenge each other’s perspectives, and push each other beyond perceived limitations…”

Culture Fit vs Fitness

Companies should replace cultural fit with cultural fitness in the selection of candidates. The latter suggest that differences can be a source of inspiration and renewal, rather than a potential bottleneck leading to frustration. Meanwhile, anyone who is into fitness knows that it is about giving and getting energy. 

Cultural fitness stands for a more open, holistic, and inclusive approach to recruitment and selection. It is not primarily about looking for similarities. Rather, it emphasizes exploring whether and how candidates and the organization can fit together

Additionally, in a cultural fitness setting, the primary selection question is, “How can this person’s qualities make our organization stronger?” Both the company and the candidate must answer this question.

There are also other important questions to ask to achieve cultural fitness, including:

  • What criteria are you looking for from a cultural-fitness perspective? 
  • What does this mean for the way job descriptions are drawn up? 
  • How do you form a candidate profile successfully? 
  • How can you assess cultural differences? Which tools exist? How can you use them in inclusive ways?

Cultural Fitness for Inspiration and Resilience   

In a time when the cliché that “change is the only thing that is certain” seems to have lost little of its value, it is crucial that one is open to different ways of working and possess ongoing, continuous curiosity for opportunities to improve. Fitness (rather than fit) helps ensure that your culture is clear and open so that people with different perspectives can thrive in order to help your company succeed.

Ultimately, fitness also offers a much better and contemporary perspective as it associates with agility (whereas fit evokes a more static association).

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