Assessing Culture Fit: Does it Work or is it a Cop-out?

“We should not recruit him/her because they are not [insert company name]- ian enough” – Sounds familiar?

I guarantee that anybody who recruits regularly has heard this, usually from someone considering themselves guardians of that nebulous concept – ‘our company’s unique culture’. Whenever I hear this, I always wonder if there is some actual logic behind this or is it just about a ‘gut feel’? In most cases what exactly constitutes culture is not documented (here is an exception – Netflix Culture), making it more of a discretionary veto over recruitment.

The impact of this could range from mildly dysfunctional work environment – you got your assessment of culture fit wrong and ended up with more chaos than order – to the worst case scenario – you basically recruited clones of yourself. The much-talked about ‘bro-culture’ from Uber – the culture that caused the company to not take the matter of women’s safety as seriously as they should have – is an example.

I think it comes down to three key points:

Understanding your culture: All companies have a culture of their own, but is your company culture a product of conscious thought process and decisions? Or as Reed Hastings put it in Masters of Scale – “Culture is retroactive narrative of success”? I find that is the case more often than not. It’s easy to attribute revenues, fame and success to the company culture in retrospect. Are you overestimating the contribution of culture to org success?

Regardless, it’s important to identify the ‘culture’ – values, priorities and collective behavioral aspects – your organization stands for. And the clearer the definition, the better – standing for “Obsessed about Quality”, “Holding People Accountable” etc. is better than the intangible and slightly utopian “Being Awesome Everyday” Or “Walking Hand-in-hand to a Better Future” and more such warm fuzzy feelings that are interpretative and tough to keep a track of.

Also remember that culture is evolving. CEOs and good folks in HR might have a desired state of culture in their minds but on-the-ground culture may have evolved into something completely different.

How do you assess ‘culture fit’? This is not only about a set of well-thought-out questions to provide insights into a candidate’s value system and thought process. Corporate world is littered with examples of leadership hires that were assessed to be good cultural fits in the beginning, only to unravel as cracks in the culture fabric start showing up (think Marissa Mayer or more recently Cyrus Mistry and Vishal Sikka).

In my experience, it is also important to differentiate cultural aspects and specific qualities the role and level would require – even if your org culture values creating safe, nurturing environment for employees, a CEO or Business Development leader needs to be an outgoing risk-taker if you are looking to expand at a fast pace. For a certain role, do you need a stellar individual contributor or collaboration-fostering lead-by-influence leader? An energetic generalist or an introverted specialist?

This is why your definition of org culture must allow for – in fact, encourage – having cognitive diversity. A diversity of views, belief systems and behavioral traits. If cognitive diversity makes people ‘cultural misfits’ in your organization, you most likely have conscious or unconscious bias inherent in your systems.

How does your org culture deal with the ‘misfits’? While it’s fine to want candidates aligned to your org culture, sooner or later you will always end up with at least some ‘misfits’ – while they align to company core values, in certain aspects they are not exactly what the company culture ‘prescribes’. In such cases, is the culture open and flexible enough to adjust, re-mould and thrive?

In one of the companies I worked at, I had two key team leaders – one of them was an engineer from a good school and the other one – with great experience and proven track record – who had not finished high school. In a company culture that values its ivy-leaguer and suave employee, I suspect the ‘misfit’ may not have felt comfortable being himself and contributing his ideas openly.

In our company on the other hand, this was done by design – none of our recruitment ads ever had minimum qualification or experience requirements. In India, we hired developers coming from small towns with degrees from 2nd tier universities and also those with well-to-do urban backgrounds and respectable degrees. In my experience, this cognitive diversity was extremely valuable and worked really well.

In other intangible cultural aspects, this line is more blurred – a company that puts a premium on collaborative, consensus-driven and inclusive leaders, an outspoken, stubborn, my-way-or-highway leader may stick out as a sore thumb. And yet, that decisiveness and candor may be exactly what the org needs in certain areas – especially if a culture or sub-culture needs some repairing. A place where the founders see the world in back-and-white, a person that sees the ‘grey’ and is willing to deal with it can add immense value in maturing the overall thought process.

This does not mean that companies should go against their core values – the heart-and-soul – to retain diversity of perspectives (Google recently fired an employee for his biased perspective on supposedly inferior technical skills of women). Core values are central to company culture and should be non-negotiable. But the rest of the cultural umbrella should definitely be made out of a flexible, stretchy material. A guiding yardstick, not a fall-in-line-or-get-hit regulatory baton.

When I hear leaders speak of culture fit, many are still using this as a justification for their ‘gut feel’ or inherent bias against a candidate.

I think it’s time we stopped.


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