Is Culture Fit a Myth?

August 10, 2017 Robin Schooling

Stepford Wives

Listen to our WorkHuman Radio interview with Robin Schooling and Bill Boorman, embedded at the top of this post.

The importance of aligning hiring to organizational culture is endlessly discussed, debated, and analyzed. Everyone from researchers to C-suite leaders to HR professionals has an opinion on how to achieve this seemingly elusive nirvana. We constantly ask ourselves, “What’s the best way to ensure the individuals we’re hiring are a ‘fit’ with our culture?”

Most of us have a clear definition of organizational culture; we understand it’s the collective behavior of the people who are part of the organization, as formed by vision, values, norms, systems, beliefs, symbols, and traditions. We know that culture affects the way individual employees and groups interact with each other, as well as customers, clients, and other stakeholders.

Yet it’s also important to remember that there is not one person (or group) who defines, owns, and controls culture. Culture cannot be manufactured or created out of nothing; it’s not a poster on the wall or a list of PR-generated values and platitudes on the company website. An organization is not a “collaborative” organization merely because the CEO says it is. Culture is not aspirational, although any organization can set a goal and work relentlessly toward shifting the culture in a fully supported and purposeful way.

Culture, which is owned and adjusted by everyone, is what exists today. It’s what we’re living in now. Absent major upheavals brought about by people, change, or other forces, it simply “is what it is.”

Bad Culture?

When I reflect on the various places I’ve worked, there is one organization that stands out as the absolute worst. It was such an incredibly horrible experience that it has long since disappeared from my resume and LinkedIn profile.

Things started off fantastically. I was referred by a former co-worker to this rapidly growing, family-owned business with about 100 employees for a role to build the HR department and position the company for further growth.

I was wooed and courted and promised endless opportunities. I also discovered that numerous family members worked there; “How nice!!” I thought (in my naiveté). It turned out that these long-time employees were akin to prisoners, hardened to anything that resembled life outside the prison walls. They were fully accustomed to the owners screaming over the intercom, cursing at employees in meetings, and treating everyone with openly veiled distrust. Every single day multiple employees came to my office in tears.

I quit after four months.

Was it a bad culture? It was filled with toxic people, the traditions were questionable, and the legalities of the HR practices were tenuous. Yet a fair number of employees had been there for 10 or more years; they obviously didn’t have any problems with the micro-managing and poisonous owners. Many of them, as I quickly discovered, yelled at each other all day, indulged in suitably passive-aggressive shenanigans, and then, as best I could ascertain, merely replicated that behavior on the home front.

It was me who didn’t “fit.”

As my friend (and WorkHuman 2017 collaborator/co-presenter) Bill Boorman likes to say, “There’s no such thing as bad culture; there’s just bad culture fit.”        

 Hiring for Culture Fit

The game-changer in all this is making sure we hire for reality; the “what-it’s-REALLY-like-to-work-here-today” culture. We can’t hire for what we hope to be or what we think we are. If we do, people will quit after four months. We can, however, focus on a few key areas:

  • Provide clear messaging: Share the reality and ensure you’re real and authentic throughout the process with a goal of attracting, selecting, hiring, and retaining the right people. Do you have a quiet, buttoned-down office atmosphere where people speak in hushed tones with minimal levity? That’s OK! Some people thrive in that work environment, so don’t try to highlight the two times per year when you have a company party; convey the actual day-to-day environment.
  • Realize “fit” does not equal “sameness”: You’re not building an army of Stepford Wives; diverse hires with varying backgrounds, experiences, and styles will bring new ideas and input. “Fit” does not mean everyone enjoys the same after-work activities or belonged to the same types of clubs in school. Remember that.
  • Focus on attracting the “right” candidates: Your messaging and recruitment marketing should be geared toward encouraging people NOT to apply (mind-blowing, right?). Have as many conversations as you want with candidates, but when it gets down to who you want the recruiters and hiring managers to spend time with, your goal should be to narrow the applicant pool to individuals who understand your culture and want to work with you whether good, bad, or ugly.

Hiring for culture fit means ensuring that both the organization and the new employee realize a right decision has been made and both sides have all the necessary information as they enter what can be a wonderful and fulfilling future together.

That, my friends, is a tremendously human way to hire.


Is Culture Fit a Myth? @robinschooling #workhuman
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