Hire for Culture or Hire for Skills? How About You Just…Hire?

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Aug 10, 2021
This article is part of a series called ERE Digital: Fall 2021.

Hiring is tough. Have you heard? 

Just kidding. Of course you have heard. When you tell the people you’re seeing at the first networking meeting you’ve been to in a year and a half that you’re in the recruiting industry, they look at you like you’re an ICU nurse coming out of a Covid ward. 

“Oh, that must be tough right now,” they say. “Nobody wants to work.”

And for certain, hiring is not the easiest it’s ever been. Especially for companies with frontline workers, it’s probably rarely been more difficult. 

But we also aren’t making it easy on ourselves, are we? In the midst of a hiring crisis, we’re still debating over hiring for culture fit or hiring for skill set. Recruiters spend time agonizing over assessment tools that help determine how well candidates will fit in or how fast they can get up to speed with their skills. The time investment will save you from making a bad hire. Or at least you think.

You put an assessment out there — whether for culture fit or skills — and pair it with an asynchronous one-way interview and then wonder why you’re getting ghosted or not getting the results you like. 

Here’s the uncomfortable reality: That technology that’s supposed to help you hire high-quality talent isn’t doing its job. It’s not helping you do your job, either. (At ERE Digital, Sept 23-24, I’ll be moderating a panel of TA professionals, “Will Tech Rise to Today’s Challenges?: New Expectations for Recruiting Technology Amidst Competitive Talent Pools.” I hope to see you there!)

Culture Fit and Skill Sets Are Two Sides of the Same Coin

I’ve heard all the arguments for hiring for culture fit or skill set. I’ve also seen the technology that is supposed to scale these assessments and none of them have blown me away.

Find somebody who fits in culturally and has the right attitude and you can train them up on skills. After all, skills are ever-changing and in flux. In some roles, it might even be better to start with someone who hasn’t been corrupted by somebody else’s training. 

Find someone with the right skills and their ability to execute and perform will help them fit in with the team. Competence makes working with your co-workers a lot easier, and besides, hiring for culture fit probably leads to diversity challenges. Hiring for skills always puts you in better legal standing with the EEOC.

There are multiple problems with both of these arguments.

For one, it assumes that a good cultural and a good skills fit doesn’t exist. Or that it’s important to decide which one will be some great tiebreaker. But choosing between two well-qualified candidates isn’t as simple as just asking about skills vs. culture. 

The culture fit people are wrong because culture is difficult to define and is changing forever. Team dynamics has always been more important, but measuring those dynamics during a hiring process either sets you up for a lousy technology-based assessment or it becomes just a guess that’s based on interview answers and those always-glowing references. 

The skillset people may be less wrong, but they’re still wrong. Identifying the real skills that someone needs to do a job and then accurately measuring those skills goes beyond every assessment tool I’ve seen. Devotees to skills will either go through hell and back to find the perfect assessment that isn’t too laborious but is still accurate — or they’ll just guess. 

Get Technology Out of the Way

It’s time to consider that many of the assessments we use to qualify or disqualify talent, regardless of culture or skill focus, are fundamentally flawed. It means that the whole emphasis on finding culture or skill fits is dependent on a process that either asks too much of the truly skilled that they never complete it or that you have a culture worth replicating. 

My modest proposal in the vein of Adam Smith is this: Get technology out of the way and hire people. 

If you’re having problems finding the right people, if you’re getting ghosted, if you’re having difficulties getting people to show up to their first day of work…and you’re still not retaining people well because your hiring isn’t great? It’s time to do something different. 

No, I haven’t reviewed every technology assessment or culture fit tool out there in the world. Is it possible that someone has found the Goldilocks assessment? One that balances the rigor of accurate skills or culture and the time it takes for candidates to complete? It’s possible, but unlikely. 

Even then, a properly assessed candidate still has to beat their way through the rest of a broken hiring process to get hired. Your hiring manager who always wants to see one more candidate? A slate of candidates languishing while you wait for approvals to move forward? A background check stalled by a courthouse in Idaho?

It doesn’t matter if they are a good culture fit or have the perfect skill set. 

Instead, if this hiring crisis is truly a crisis, we need to work with every stakeholder to find ways to eliminate the unnecessary issues that slow down hiring for very little appreciable benefit. And for a tech column, it may seem weird to suggest that you drop technology, but if that’s what’s preventing you from hiring, it’s time to move on. 

Continuing to debate culture vs. skills only suggests that we are still being picky in all of the ways we can’t afford to. Then again, maybe we don’t actually have a hiring crisis. It’s possible. But even in that case, it’s still worth looking at your assessment tools and evaluating whether what you’re doing with them is truly helping or hurting your hiring. It certainly can’t be any worse than arguing whether we should be looking at skills versus culture. 

Want more tech insights from Lance? Join him and an array of recruiting practitioners at ERE Digital, Sept 23-24. Lance will be moderating a panel titled, “Will Tech Rise to Today’s Challenges?: New Expectations for Recruiting Technology Amidst Competitive Talent Pools.” View more sessions and register here.)

This article is part of a series called ERE Digital: Fall 2021.
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