The Value of Person-Organization Fit

May 19, 2004

You don’t have to have been hanging around the world of hiring too long to have been exposed to discussions about how well an individual “fits” in with an organization. If you think about it, the idea of ensuring a good fit between a candidate and a job or organization is pretty much the main idea of the entire hiring process. But the term “fit” is a vague one that’s tossed around so causally and often that it means different things to different people. While there is value in the idea of fit no matter how you define it, when the rubber meets the road during the actual hiring process it’s important that the meaning of fit be clearly defined. The purpose of this article is to help discuss the concept of “fit” as we I/O psychologist types have traditionally defined it. It’s my hope that this discussion will help to promote a better understanding of the concept of fit and its many positive outcomes, while also helping readers think about how they might use it in their own hiring processes. Defining Fit Organizational psychologists have traditionally defined fit in two distinct ways. Both definitions can play an important role in providing the data needed to help make quality hiring decisions, but they do so in different ways. This is not to say that one way is any better then the other; in fact, in my opinion, there is value in using both types to compliment one another. The exact way in which each type of fit adds value to the hiring process will become more apparent once they have been defined more clearly.

  1. Person-Job Fit (or P-J Fit). The first type is what we refer to as “Person-Job Fit.” This is the type of fit you most often hear me talking about when I advocate the use of assessment tools in the hiring process. Indeed, it’s the most common way fit is defined by organizations. Person-Job Fit involves the measurement of what we often refer to as “hard” information about a candidate’s suitability for the tasks that are required for successful performance of a specific job. “Hard” aspects of P-J Fit include things such as a candidate’s specific skills, their levels of knowledge about specific subject matter, and their cognitive abilities. In many cases, P-J Fit also includes “softer” measures such as the examination of an applicant’s personality traits relative to specific job requirements. However, personality is kind of in a no man’s land when it comes to defining fit. That’s because it can provide information on both P-J Fit and the second kind of fit I will be discussing in this article, “Person-Organization Fit.” However, for the purposes of this discussion, I prefer to treat personality as a tool for measuring Person-Job Fit only. This is because the traditional definition of fit used by organizational psychologists does not usually involve the use of measures designed to assess personality traits.
  2. Person-Organization Fit (or P-O Fit). The second type of fit, the main focus of this article, is known as “Person-Organization Fit.” It is much less common for this kind of fit to be systematically measured during the hiring process using scientifically designed tools. Instead, this type of fit is usually discussed conjecturally in hiring-related conversations. For instance, how many times have we all heard someone say “I think Sally is a really good fit for our company. Let’s hire her!”?

We all have a pretty good idea of what a good fit means in an “I know it when I see it” kind of way, but it’s often much more difficult to break down the idea of a “good fit” into the elements required for using it as a systematic part of the hiring process. Doing so requires the use of measures of P-O Fit that are based on the following definition: “Person-Organization Fit is the congruence of an individual’s beliefs and values with the culture, norms, and values of an organization.” One of the limitations that is immediately apparent from this definition is the fact that the elements of P-O Fit are rather soft. That is to say, it’s much more difficult to examine the job-related outcomes of a match between person and an organization as it relates to abstract concepts such as “values” and “culture” then it is to examine the outcomes of the match between harder traits, such as a person’s mathematical ability and the related aspects of their job performance. Just because it’s softer in nature and involves less objective constructs then P-J Fit, that doesn’t mean P-O Fit is any less important, and there are in fact many benefits to including it in the hiring process (these will be discussed later in this article). However, it is important to understand that the less objective nature of P-O Fit often makes it harder for organizations to demonstrate its relevance to real aspects of job performance and to create ways to actually measure the ROI associated with a good fit. How Is P-O Fit Measured? As I stated earlier, P-O Fit is most often measured in terms of the congruence between a set of work-related values held by a candidate and the culture of an organization. While it may be easy to think of all kinds of work values that may be important, research performed by psychologists suggests that P-O Fit can be broken down into some very specific dimensions. Although many folks have done research into P-O Fit, some of the most useful work has been performed by Jennifer Chatman, whose Organizational Culture Profile (OCP) identifies the following major dimensions:

  • Innovation
  • Stability
  • Orientation towards people (fair and supportive)
  • Orientation towards outcomes (results-oriented, achievement-oriented)
  • Easygoing vs. aggressive
  • Attention to detail
  • Team orientation

The OCP uses these dimensions to measure fit via the following process: First of all, a baseline for the organization’s culture is established. This is done by having members of the organization make ratings based on their opinions regarding which of the above dimensions they feel are most and least characteristic of the organization. These ratings are then aggregated to provide a profile that defines the organization’s culture in terms of these dimensions. One really cool aspect of this process is that it can be used to identify the culture of any aggregate group within the organization (as long as members of that group complete the rating process). Second, an individual’s personal value profile is created. This process involves having individuals rank their own personal values on the dimensions listed above in terms of their most and least preferred work environment. Finally, the individual’s ranking of the above work values are then compared with the aggregate values profile that was created by the organization in order to summarize its culture. This comparison process yields detailed information about the overlap between the values of an organization (or one of its many groups) and those of an individual. These outcomes provide a data-based estimate of the fit between an individual and the group or organization. As you can imagine, this information can be very useful for helping organizations make all kinds of important decisions. Outcomes of Fit While the softer nature of the dimensions of P-O Fit means that they are often not the best tools to use when trying to predict hard, objective aspects of job performance, research has demonstrated many ways in which fit can have value for an organization. Probably the most notable outcome of a good P-O Fit is increased tenure. It makes perfect sense that the greater the fit between the values of an individual and those of the organization, the more likely they will be to remain with that organization. There has been a good deal of scientific research that has provided support for this relationship. An understanding of the hard costs associated with turnover makes the idea of increased fit an attractive proposition. Fit has also been shown to have many less tangible outcomes as well. For instance, fit has been linked to increased worker satisfaction, organizational commitment, and organizational identification. Although they are hard to measure objectively, these benefits often form the foundation for intangibles such as employees “going the extra mile” for the company or doing things such as recruiting others to join the organization. An understanding of an individual’s work values relative to those of groups within the organization can also have value that goes well beyond the selection process. This type of data can be very useful for optimizing the configuration of work groups and teams, as well as helping to evaluate the suitability of an individual for promotion into a new area within the organization. In short, there are many positive outcomes of a good P-O Fit. Unfortunately, the subjective nature of many of these outcomes may make it hard for organizations to completely understand the value of fit beyond that provided by the benefits of increased tenure. Potential Problems With Using Fit While there are many great benefits to using measures of P-O Fit as a part of your employee selection process, there are also several potential issues that anyone thinking of using it must fully consider. First of all, the softer, less objective nature of the dimensions that make up P-O Fit ó and the fact that they often transcend the actual duties associated with a specific job ó means that it can be hard to link P-O Fit measures directly to job performance. This is especially true of jobs in which performance is evaluated using highly objective measures (sales jobs for instance). There are two implications of this. First of all, it’s important to understand the difference between measures of P-O Fit and measures of P-J Fit. One is not a substitute for the other; rather they are complimentary measures that should account for different aspects of job performance. Secondly, when used as part of the employee selection process P-O Fit measures are still subject to the same standards as all other parts of the hiring process. This means that organizations using fit as part of their selection process are still obligated to document clear linkages between these measures and job performance requirements. In my opinion, the quickest and easiest path to satisfying this requirement is to link P-O Fit measures directly to a competency model. Most competency models are global in nature and often include constructs that are similar to those that make up P-O Fit. Innovation is a good example. A good competency model should include examples of how the trait of innovation applies to performance for a job or family of jobs, thus providing the documentation needed to ensure legal defensibility. Another potential issue with the use of P-O fit measures lies in the fact that the meaning of fit is entirely dependent upon the culture of the organizational group with which an individual is compared. This can be a problem because many organizations have a large number of groups and each may not share the same values. For this reason, it’s critical to ensure that the cultural standard to which an individual is compared is reflective of the group that he or she will be working with. Failure to do this can result in mismatch that could negate the value of using the tool in the first place. Finally, the “softer” nature of the concept of fit means that there is even more opportunity for unscrupulous vendors to pass off low quality products that are supposed to provide good measures of fit. We have seen this occur time and again with assessment products, but the softer nature of fit provides even more leeway for vendors to introduce “fluffy” test content that is essentially worthless. So if you do plan to use P-O Fit as part of your hiring process, it’s useful to do some research to be sure you have a good understanding of what this concept is all about before looking for a vendor. Letting a vendor who claims they can measure fit drive your decision to use it as part of your hiring process can end up being a big mistake. Practical Tips About Fit I want to close my discussion with a quick overview of some of my ideas for how companies can use P-O Fit to their advantage:

  • Build fit into your employment brand. There is lots of value in taking the time to understand the values held by your organization in terms of P-O Fit and then communicating these values in your recruitment brand. This provides a very good initial screening mechanism because it will send a clear message to those sharing the same values ó the very same people you are interested in having on board!
  • Use P-O Fit data to compliment P-J Fit data. Both of these types of information can have lots of value to organizations. In fact, because they address different aspects of job performance, they can actually provide a situation in which the whole is greater then the sum of its parts in terms of making hiring decisions. As always, it’s important not to use P-O Fit data as the sole criteria when making hiring decisions. Good hiring decisions should always be based on multiple sources of information.
  • Use fit to optimize teams when making internal assignments. One of the greatest things about P-O Fit data is that is has lots of value for helping organizations determine which individual is the best choice for an internal assignment. An inventory of values collected during the hiring process can be used to help ensure that an employee is not assigned to a work group that has a culture that is not in line with their values. This type of evaluation can have a major impact on the productivity of work groups within the organization.
  • Study the impact of P-O Fit. Fit has been shown to be a great predictor of tenure. Tenure is typically one of the easiest ways to investigate the ROI of a selection tool. This alone should make adopting measures of fit an easy sell to those controlling the purse strings. While this is a good thing, many of the other things fit has been shown to impact are much harder to measure. It’s important that organizations choosing to use fit should really challenge themselves to try and collect some data regarding its impact on objective criteria other than tenure.

Organizations choosing to include P-O Fit in their hiring process stand to benefit from both tangible outcomes such as reduced turnover and less tangible, but no less important, outcomes ó such as increased commitment to the organization and its mission.