Hiring for Culture Fit Doesn't Have to Undermine Diversity

Although most managers would agree that it is important to hire people who fit into the company culture, the idea of hiring for cultural fit has become controversial. Our research suggests it need not be.

Most of the controversy boils down to a single key issue: having the wrong definition of culture fit. The confusion over what culture fit is has given rise to a number of common misconceptions. Clearing them up can help managers improve their talent strategies.

MISCONCEPTION 1: CULTURE FIT IS “NICE TO HAVE” BUT NOT A NECESSITY

One of the main assumptions that hiring managers make is that employees’ skills and competences matter more for organizational effectiveness than how well they fit in. While we’re not disputing the importance of having a highly skilled workforce, research has shown that “culture fit” — which we and others define as how well one’s values adhere to the values of the organization or team — plays a significant role in how people act and behave at work. Meta-analyses have found that people whose values are more aligned with those of their organization are more committed to the organization, more satisfied with their job and less inclined to leave. Studies show that value fit also relates to actual job choice decisions in the sense that people with higher value fit stay longer and perform better than people whose values are not as good a fit. So if leaders want to have an engaged and motivated workforce — as well as the ability to attract and retain the skilled employees they want — culture fit is essential. It is not a secondary quality in a job candidate; it is as important to overall organizational functioning as hiring for other qualities.

MISCONCEPTION 2: HIRING FOR CULTURE FIT HURTS DIVERSITY

The idea here is that hiring for culture fit undermines efforts to increase workplace diversity, because it leads to hiring managers essentially trying to clone their current workforce. Although this assertion seems to make sense at first glance, a simultaneous pursuit of culture fit and diversity is possible. An assessment of culture fit should focus on how well the person’s values align with the organization’s, rather than how well personal characteristics — such as gender, ethnicity, age and sexual orientation — align with the current workforce. Research shows that adopting this stricter definition of culture fit can reap its benefits and bring in diverse perspectives, experiences and skills at the same time

MISCONCEPTION 3: HIRING FOR CULTURE FIT HURTS INNOVATION

This misconception relies on the idea that if everyone is the same, it reduces creative thinking and therefore the potential for innovation. This supposes that when people think differently from one another, it boosts innovation. But again, people can think differently while still maintaining the organization’s overall values. A recent study found that when members perceived higher value fit to their team, team leaders rated the team as being more innovative. Importantly, the effect of value fit on innovation was due to team members identifying more strongly with one another, which led to them being more accepting of each other’s ideas and approaches. Innovation often involves conflict and difficult processes; sharing values can help keep everyone aligned.

MISCONCEPTION 4: HIRING FOR CULTURE FIT IS AN ART, NOT A SCIENCE

Many companies frown upon hiring for culture fit because of this common misunderstanding. When people try to assess a candidate’s values based on their own intuition, the assessment can easily get confounded by unrelated factors.

You can’t determine culture fit without a proper measurement. This consists of three steps: First, measure the actual values of your employees. This is done by using a standardized value instrument. Second, because the goal is to see how well the candidate’s values match organizational values, the candidate assessment should be done using the same standardized instrument. Third, compare the candidate’s assessment with the organization’s measured values in an objective way. Using algorithms can help minimize bias at this step. You want to see overlapping values between the candidate and the company. For example, an organization that greatly values hard work might consider hiring a candidate who values it similarly.

We believe that hiring for culture fit is something organizations can and should do. By properly defining culture fit and using the right recruiting tools, managers can ensure they’re hiring people who help improve engagement, satisfaction and retention.

Copyright 2019 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.

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