Seeking out candidates who will fit in with a company’s culture has been popular with recruiters in recent years. The concept of a “corporate culture” emerged among psychologists and other academics in the 1980s. The idea took off in the latter part of the decade after business leaders such as Lou Gerstner, the chief executive of IBM, cited culture as key to successfully bringing the company back from the brink of ruin. After that, trying to find new recruits who fit a company’s culture became common practice –– at least until recently when the idea of cultural add emerged. But what does cultural fit really mean? How has it been used by companies and recruiters when looking for staff? And where does cultural add come in?
What is cultural fit?
The idea behind “cultural fit” is to employ new staff who have similar beliefs, behaviors and values as the company looking to add to its numbers. In other words, those who can fit into the organization’s existing culture. For example, online shoe and clothing retailer Zappos decided to recruit people based on its desired company culture, which is defined through its 10 core values. In his book, Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion and Purpose, the former chief executive Tony Hsieh wrote, “Our belief is that if you get the culture right, most of the other stuff –– like great customer service, or building a great long-term brand, or passionate employees and customers –– will happen naturally on its own.”
Author Lauren Rivera summed up the idea in her 2015 New York Times op-ed entitled Guess Who Doesn’t Fit In At Work. She wrote: “If companies hired individuals whose personalities and values — and not just their skills — meshed with an organization’s strategy, workers would feel more attached to their jobs, work harder and stay longer.” In Rivera’s book, Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs, which analyzes how culture fit has been applied in the workforce, she writes that “shared experiences” are some of the biggest factors that those hiring use to check cultural fit.
In theory, cultural fit seems like a logical hiring practice for businesses trying to find employees who will continue the momentum of the operation. Paul Erdahl, a consulting psychologist and founder of Global Talent Strategies, says, “If your organization doesn’t need radical change or something completely new, then cultural fit can be very helpful.” To ensure that the business remains productive and profitable, managers will look for candidates who fit into the existing company culture. If it isn’t broken, why would you fix it? Or so the theory goes.
In a 2013 global survey, 82% of managers said that measuring cultural fit was important but half of those surveyed also said that their “organizational culture wasn’t clearly defined.” So how does one measure something that hasn’t been defined? It doesn’t seem to be possible – which indicates that managers are operating on instinct or other factors. At the same time, 59% of respondents said they had rejected candidates because of their lack of cultural fit. In many such instances, fit is being measured by those doing the interviewing.
Cultural fit under fire
In a 2021 interview for Teleperformance Group’s Insight series, organizational psychologist and Wharton professor Adam Grant talked about how companies can foster an innovation culture and argues against a cultural fit approach. “Although people are really happy working at organizations where everyone feels culture fit, it breeds a lot of groupthink,” he said. “Culture fit becomes code for ‘Would I like to hang out and have drinks with you after work?’ or ‘Are we similar? Do we have the same training?’”
The departure away from cultural fit acknowledges the risks of unconscious bias and attempts to avoid it through more diverse hiring practices. That is where cultural add comes in.
What is cultural add?
Rather than just looking to recruit staff who will fit in well, cultural add involves hiring new employees who will complement the values of a company while also adding new perspectives. “If you want to build a culture of original thinking, what you need instead of hiring for culture fit is to hire on cultural contribution,” Grant said. “The starting point is to look at your culture and ask ‘What’s missing?’ And then [ask] ‘How can we hire, promote, reward and retain people who are best stretching and improving and evolving that culture’.”
Instead of asking whether a candidate fits the current mold of a company, cultural add asks what new perspectives and lived experiences a candidate will bring to the table. In doing so, the company also expands its diversity.
Over the past few years, several organizations have published studies outlining the positive outcomes diversity has for companies. Mckinsey found that racially and ethnically diverse companies are 35% more likely to outperform their competitors, while Deloitte found an 80% uplift in business performance when diversity and inclusion were high. In other studies, diversity has also led to smarter teams and higher innovation.
Different approaches to hiring for culture
When it comes to cultural fit, different businesses have different approaches. Tiffany Bianco, a creative director for AS Beauty, takes candidates’ personalities and values into account when hiring for creative roles within the company, but is also happy to accept a variety of opinions. “Our creative team needs to mesh well as a group and have the same expectations of our work processes in order to produce our best content,” she said. “We don’t need to all have identical viewpoints on everything, but if we have vastly different ideas for the execution of our end goal, then we spend too much time trying to bridge that disconnect and end up going around in circles.”
Many larger corporations, such as Facebook, have instituted a hiring structure to specifically help educate recruiters and managers on how best to interview for culture. The goal is to prepare employees for a complex, multilayered hiring process and teach them to screen for any potential biases.
Kaustubh Vinchure, a software engineer at Bloomberg, said that a similar awareness of unconscious bias existed when he helped during the hiring process for his team. “We are not allowed to say ‘cultural fit’ at any point during the hiring process,” he said. “We don’t want to invite any thought of preconceived bias into the interview. So, the idea is to avoid any language or concept that would influence our decisions.”
The future of hiring
While companies such as Buffer and Shopify are moving toward inclusive methods centered around cultural add, some research says that cultural fit still has relevance in hiring practices. Erdahl says that, whether you’re hiring for cultural fit or add, the most important factor companies need to acknowledge is the reason and intention behind the hiring process. “If the expectations of why different people are being brought in aren’t clear and if there’s no structure of support for this change, then you probably want to hire people who fit the current organization,” he said. “If you are bringing in someone who is an ‘add,’ then the organization needs to be very intentional and deliberate about why they’re doing it and what their expectations are.”
In a 2020 study conducted for the University of California, researchers found that, while cultural fit is important to employee success, a better overall predictor of success is adaptability or how well employees can adapt to organizational culture changes over time. In this study, which was published in the Harvard Business Review, big-data processing was used to study the language employees use in their internal communications on media such as email, Slack messages, and Glassdoor postings.
The goal was to measure how culture influences employees’ thoughts and behaviors at work. It concludes that hiring candidates who share similar values with current employees is more important if companies are working to foster a stable and committed workforce, whereas a candidate’s adaptability to new cultural contexts is more important if companies need people who can quickly assimilate and be productive. “Too much emphasis on cultural fit can stifle diversity and cause managers to overlook promising candidates with unique perspectives,” it says.
This idea is supported by a Stanford University study, which showed that hiring for cultural fit helped start-up companies during the beginning stages, but, once they reached the flotation stage, their performance and growth slowed down.
These findings support the current practice, followed by companies such as Gallup, that hiring for fit can be beneficial but only when measured against an inclusive company culture that promotes diversity. So is cultural add the new cultural fit? That depends.
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