Cultural fit

I’ve been with my present company for nearly five years and have fulfilled numerous job roles over that time: I was hired as the second Web Designer, then moved into Project Management, then to Marketing Manager. After that, I led the nascent Product Development Team as Product Manager for two years; about six months ago, I was asked to head up and lead the Creative and User Experience Team (design had been part of the Operations Delivery Team, rather than a function in its own right).

In this time, I have been involved in hiring for a varied selection of job roles: designers, telemarketers, sales development managers, project managers, account managers, front-end developers, back-end developers, operations managers, and more.

In every case, whilst the candidates’ skills have been important, what has defined their success within our company is whether or not they are a good “cultural fit”.

An article in Bloomberg BusinessWeek maintains that, in hiring, job applicants’ cultural fit can trump qualifications.

In the December issue of the American Sociological Review, Northwestern professor Lauren Rivera concludes that companies are making hiring decisions “in a manner more closely resembling the choice of friends or romantic partners.” Rivera found that apparently off-topic questions have become central to the hiring process. “Whether someone rock climbs, plays the cello, or enjoys film noir may seem trivial,” she wrote, “but these leisure pursuits were crucial for assessing someone as a cultural fit.” As a result, Rivera argues, “employers don’t necessarily hire the most skilled candidates.”

The phrase “cultural fit” may summon up obnoxious images of old boys clubs and social connections, but it’s a powerful buzzword among human resources professionals. A cooperative, creative atmosphere can make workdays more tolerable and head off problems before they begin. “I used to work for an e-commerce company that spent a lot of time refining its culture,” says Mercedes Douglas, now head of recruiting at Kikin, an Internet search startup. “I hired someone as a manager, and it created a lot of tension because he didn’t fit in. People tried to alienate him because they weren’t interested in him as a friend,” she says. And it also goes the other way. “I once hired a woman who really didn’t have the right background or experience for the job, but who I hit it off with during the interview,” says Rebecca Grossman-Cohen, a marketing executive at News Corp. (NWS). “And because we got along so well, I was able to train her easily, and she ended up doing great things for us.”[*]

Cultural fit is tremendously important and, given two candidates with different skills, we will certainly go with the one that we feel is going to fit in best with the company culture.

Don Melton does offer some words of warning about this attitude—not least in that it is possible that asking certain questions of a candidate could get you into trouble legally. However, this hiring policy can have negative effects on your business too.

More importantly, screening for cultural fit is a tricky goal since your organization could wind up with a monoculture. Making sure your new employees embrace your company culture, e.g. innovation, is a good thing. Making sure all those employees are similar culturally can play havoc with diversity and limit perspectives. And that’s bad.

This is true, but the danger can be somewhat mitigated by the fact that the cultural fit in certain teams might be different. The culture which pertains to our Sales & Marketing Team, for instance, is very different to that within my own—partly because they do a different job, and have a rather different attitude to the customer.

However, none of this alters the fact that the people driving our company forward—regardless of what team they are in—share a certain attitude: they are, in the main, extremely knowledgable about our customers and markets, extremely technically savvy (not necessarily in the detail of code, but in identifying wider trends), strong-willed and entrepreneurial. Importantly, they are able to understand how to apply all of this general knowledge to the specific problems and developments that our company needs to address.

But most crucially, all of these people are committed to ensuring the company’s success, despite any set-backs.

And these people are often not “managers”; this being the case, our company is not massively hierarchical because power naturally flows to those with not only the knowledge and skills but also a “can do” attitude.

After all, if you have a question about something, you aren’t going to go to that guy who is going to get annoyed or mock you for not knowing the answer, are you? No, you are going to go to the guy who not only knows the answer and will give it to you freely, but is also going to say “what can I do to help?”

Whilst it could be argued that this leads to a certain exploitation of these individuals, in a small company, the maximum dissemination of knowledge is incredibly important. And if I, as a salesman, am asking a question about the capabilities of one of our products, it must mean that I require it so that I can do my job, i.e. selling said product; and, of course, selling said product (and being accurate about its features) is to the benefit of the company.

As such, it does also mean that these knowledgable individuals are seen to be aligned with the company’s aims rather than just their own. This perceived similarity of purpose binds them—in the minds of others as well as, often, themselves—into a team that transcends normal hierarchical or departmental bounds.

And so we return to this idea of cultural fit, and of which kind of culture you actually want people to fit into.

When I interview people, I do want definitely want them to fit into my team’s ethos; but if they are highly skilled and are going to be able to do the job that I need them to do really well, then we’ll hire them.

However, what I am really looking for—every time—is someone who is likely to become one of those “core” people; someone who is going to advance the company, who will be a manager—whether officially or not.

And that’s the cultural fit that we’d really like candidates to suit.

* Let’s hope that the interviewee in the latter example wasn’t Rebekah Brookes.

** As it happens, I am currently looking for two Web Designers / Front-end Developers. And one of them most definitely needs to be a “core” person, since they will eventually be leading the Creative and User Experience Team.