Let’s Get Serious: Culture Fit Matters

There’s a new trend afoot among the “thought leaders” bubbling up: culture fit doesn’t matter, it’s all about values. Focus on hiring for values for retention success.

Seriously? It’s hard to take that statement seriously.

Values are the reasons behind norms; the guiding principles behind expected actions. Culture is values in action, plus purpose, traditions, beliefs, interactions, behaviors and personalities. So how exactly does it make sense to ignore organizational or team fit with everything except values?

Answer: it doesn’t. And it’s quite a far cry from 2015, when culture was the word of the year. Deloitte research showed then that over half of all business leaders rated the culture issue as urgent. Its 2017 report shows it remains a top issue, with a widening into overall employee experience.

To say not to hire for culture fit is completely missing the mark.

Defining Culture

To really understand why the concept of ignoring culture fit in recruitment is nonsensical, we first have to really understand culture dynamics at work, and how organizations need to work them.

The problem is twofold: first, many truly don’t understand what culture really is, relating culture to the daily perks and workplace atmosphere marketed by Silicon Valley. The other issue is that many organizations choose not to purposefully define their workplace culture. Some state they believe it’s better to let their culture take shape “organically” rather than purposefully cultivate a workplace culture. Others still spout off their values when you ask about their culture, but haven’t actually evaluated it to learn exactly how those values area lived out in practice.

So if culture is so important, why wouldn’t all organizations want to define it? The likeliest answer is that it’s a significant amount of work. Additionally, who you are, as an organization, might not be in synch with the aspirational vision the executives have for the company. It’s not uncommon to hear HR and/or recruiting to think they shouldn’t explore the actual company culture for fear findings will be rejected by their C-suite. That’s a mistake that can create culture conflicts which cost the company millions in diminished productivity and attrition.

Really Digging In to Culture

The best one-liner I’ve heard defining culture is that it’s the pulsing personality of an organization. Strictly speaking, culture is defined as values, norms, symbols, systems, language, beliefs, vision, assumptions, and habits. Applied to a company, it’s all of these things — shared and lived out through the employee population. You see the outputs of your company culture every day in how your employees act, what they think about their jobs, when they choose to stay employed with your firm, or leave to go work somewhere else.

Depending on size, a company can have subcultures as well: each location, team … even job families and roles can have slightly different levels in each of the ideals (values the noun) and practices (values the verb). So when you set out to define your company culture, go the full mile and drill down into the team and job role levels.

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How to Define Your Culture 

Defining your company culture isn’t something done around the executive leadership conference table or in the HR department bubble. The best approach is a collaborative one, aided by technology. Look at these steps:

  1. Form a culture committee and set aside preconceived notions. The biggest danger as you set out to define your culture will be preconceived notions as to what you think your company is or what you think it should be based off of other cool cultures you’ve read about. In this stage, you need to focus on “current state reality” vs. aspirational. So start by committing as a team to act as reporters or company sociologists: study first, changes come later.
  2. Create a culture draft. What do you think comprises your culture as it is defined above? Where are you strong? Where are you weak? Draft it out into a report as though you’ve done all the steps laid out below. You’ll revise it later with your actual findings.
  3. Interview. A good culture audit has both surveys and interviews. Depending on the size of your leadership team (it needs to be greater than three), you can include them in the interview list, but the focus should be on those outside of leadership. When doing an audit, we try to interview at least 40-60 individual employees about their perceptions of the company culture (what comes to mind when thinking about company culture), the meaning of their work, experiences they had where they were working with people who seemed to “fit,” those who didn’t and their aspirations … anything they would add to the company culture, if they could.
  4. Survey. Interviews are most meaningful when they’re somewhat brief — or at least manageable — in length of time. That’s why we focus on qualitative questions when interviewing face to face or on the phone. The rest of the information we put into quantitative questions, using a radio dial answer method around the 16 value factors associated with company culture. If you don’t already have a survey system, you can use Typeform or even MailChimp to send something out to your employees. While it’s tempting to ask for “fill-in-the-blank” questions to get back broader answers, this should be limited to a couple of questions at the end as they lend themselves to subjective answers that are more difficult to categorize and weight. A best practice is to set 12 questions and then ask those questions six different ways to assure statistical validity when creating the model from your responses.
  5. Analyze Results. Once your survey is back and interviews are completed, look at your data. What trends and commonalities do you see emerging?  Was there anything that bubbled up you didn’t expect, so it wasn’t cared for in your culture draft report?  If so, make the necessary adjustments to report accurate findings.
  6. Create Recommendations. Now that you know conclusively what your culture is, outline the gaps between “current state” and “desired state” as it relates to the kind of culture you want your company to have. This is where it’s appropriate to look at other cultures and highlight what you think might work well in your organization. Just because it works for one company doesn’t mean it will work for yours. Company culture initiatives should be tied to your company’s mission, purpose, and business objectives. You then hire to support the business and culture initiatives you’re driving.

Once you’re done with this step, you can preset to gain executive buy-in and start the adoption process in your organization. For those looking to make significant culture shifts, don’t try to change too much at one time. Rather, create a change management plan that your employer brand and culture marketing can help support over time. Shifting the variables in your culture more than 10 percent in any given quarter can lead to “culture shock,” prompting attrition you may not be ready for and morale issues that need to be managed. So go slow, and share meaningful culture marketing communications regularly to help your employee population understand the why and benefits to both the business and them. Finally, protect the culture you’re trying to either foster or strengthen by hiring to that culture code.

Knowing what culture really is, then truly understanding your company’s culture will help you hire to your culture as a whole instead of just aspects of it. So while it may be trendy to ignore culture in hiring, why would you ever really want to?

Crystal Miller Lay

Crystal Miller Lay is the CEO of Branded Strategies, building employment branding and recruitment marketing strategies for some of the world’s biggest brands. She has worked with start-ups to Fortune 15 companies to at the intersection of HR & marketing; creating campaigns and strategies that solve business problems, tell compelling corporate stories and share the meaning of work in engaging ways that drive results.

She has been a reliable expert source on the topics of talent attraction, talent acquisition, talent management, and digital strategy for multiple media outlets including CBS, Hanley-Wood, Mashable, and ABC. As an industry leader, she writes for outlets such as ERE and Recruiting daily, is recognized for expertise in employer branding, recruitment strategy & marketing, social media, community building, digital strategic solutions and speaks globally on the same.