Let’s Get Serious: Culture Fit Matters

There’s a new trend afoot among the “thought leaders” bubbling up: culture fit doesn’t matter, it’s all about values. Focus on hiring for values for retention success.

Seriously? It’s hard to take that statement seriously.

Values are the reasons behind norms; the guiding principles behind expected actions. Culture is values in action, plus purpose, traditions, beliefs, interactions, behaviors and personalities. So how exactly does it make sense to ignore organizational or team fit with everything except values?

Answer: it doesn’t. And it’s quite a far cry from 2015, when culture was the word of the year. Deloitte research showed then that over half of all business leaders rated the culture issue as urgent. Its 2017 report shows it remains a top issue, with a widening into overall employee experience.

To say not to hire for culture fit is completely missing the mark.

Defining Culture

To really understand why the concept of ignoring culture fit in recruitment is nonsensical, we first have to really understand culture dynamics at work, and how organizations need to work them.

The problem is twofold: first, many truly don’t understand what culture really is, relating culture to the daily perks and workplace atmosphere marketed by Silicon Valley. The other issue is that many organizations choose not to purposefully define their workplace culture. Some state they believe it’s better to let their culture take shape “organically” rather than purposefully cultivate a workplace culture. Others still spout off their values when you ask about their culture, but haven’t actually evaluated it to learn exactly how those values area lived out in practice.

So if culture is so important, why wouldn’t all organizations want to define it? The likeliest answer is that it’s a significant amount of work. Additionally, who you are, as an organization, might not be in synch with the aspirational vision the executives have for the company. It’s not uncommon to hear HR and/or recruiting to think they shouldn’t explore the actual company culture for fear findings will be rejected by their C-suite. That’s a mistake that can create culture conflicts which cost the company millions in diminished productivity and attrition.

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Really Digging In to Culture

The best one-liner I’ve heard defining culture is that it’s the pulsing personality of an organization. Strictly speaking, culture is defined as values, norms, symbols, systems, language, beliefs, vision, assumptions, and habits. Applied to a company, it’s all of these things — shared and lived out through the employee population. You see the outputs of your company culture every day in how your employees act, what they think about their jobs, when they choose to stay employed with your firm, or leave to go work somewhere else.

Depending on size, a company can have subcultures as well: each location, team … even job families and roles can have slightly different levels in each of the ideals (values the noun) and practices (values the verb). So when you set out to define your company culture, go the full mile and drill down into the team and job role levels.

How to Define Your Culture 

Defining your company culture isn’t something done around the executive leadership conference table or in the HR department bubble. The best approach is a collaborative one, aided by technology. Look at these steps:

  1. Form a culture committee and set aside preconceived notions. The biggest danger as you set out to define your culture will be preconceived notions as to what you think your company is or what you think it should be based off of other cool cultures you’ve read about. In this stage, you need to focus on “current state reality” vs. aspirational. So start by committing as a team to act as reporters or company sociologists: study first, changes come later.
  2. Create a culture draft. What do you think comprises your culture as it is defined above? Where are you strong? Where are you weak? Draft it out into a report as though you’ve done all the steps laid out below. You’ll revise it later with your actual findings.
  3. Interview. A good culture audit has both surveys and interviews. Depending on the size of your leadership team (it needs to be greater than three), you can include them in the interview list, but the focus should be on those outside of leadership. When doing an audit, we try to interview at least 40-60 individual employees about their perceptions of the company culture (what comes to mind when thinking about company culture), the meaning of their work, experiences they had where they were working with people who seemed to “fit,” those who didn’t and their aspirations … anything they would add to the company culture, if they could.
  4. Survey. Interviews are most meaningful when they’re somewhat brief — or at least manageable — in length of time. That’s why we focus on qualitative questions when interviewing face to face or on the phone. The rest of the information we put into quantitative questions, using a radio dial answer method around the 16 value factors associated with company culture. If you don’t already have a survey system, you can use Typeform or even MailChimp to send something out to your employees. While it’s tempting to ask for “fill-in-the-blank” questions to get back broader answers, this should be limited to a couple of questions at the end as they lend themselves to subjective answers that are more difficult to categorize and weight. A best practice is to set 12 questions and then ask those questions six different ways to assure statistical validity when creating the model from your responses.
  5. Analyze Results. Once your survey is back and interviews are completed, look at your data. What trends and commonalities do you see emerging?  Was there anything that bubbled up you didn’t expect, so it wasn’t cared for in your culture draft report?  If so, make the necessary adjustments to report accurate findings.
  6. Create Recommendations. Now that you know conclusively what your culture is, outline the gaps between “current state” and “desired state” as it relates to the kind of culture you want your company to have. This is where it’s appropriate to look at other cultures and highlight what you think might work well in your organization. Just because it works for one company doesn’t mean it will work for yours. Company culture initiatives should be tied to your company’s mission, purpose, and business objectives. You then hire to support the business and culture initiatives you’re driving.

Once you’re done with this step, you can preset to gain executive buy-in and start the adoption process in your organization. For those looking to make significant culture shifts, don’t try to change too much at one time. Rather, create a change management plan that your employer brand and culture marketing can help support over time. Shifting the variables in your culture more than 10 percent in any given quarter can lead to “culture shock,” prompting attrition you may not be ready for and morale issues that need to be managed. So go slow, and share meaningful culture marketing communications regularly to help your employee population understand the why and benefits to both the business and them. Finally, protect the culture you’re trying to either foster or strengthen by hiring to that culture code.

Knowing what culture really is, then truly understanding your company’s culture will help you hire to your culture as a whole instead of just aspects of it. So while it may be trendy to ignore culture in hiring, why would you ever really want to?

Crystal Miller Lay is the CEO of Branded Strategies, building employment branding and recruitment marketing strategies for some of the world’s biggest brands. She has worked with start-ups to Fortune 15 companies to at the intersection of HR & marketing; creating campaigns and strategies that solve business problems, tell compelling corporate stories and share the meaning of work in engaging ways that drive results.

She has been a reliable expert source on the topics of talent attraction, talent acquisition, talent management, and digital strategy for multiple media outlets including CBS, Hanley-Wood, Mashable, and ABC. As an industry leader, she writes for outlets such as ERE and Recruiting daily, is recognized for expertise in employer branding, recruitment strategy & marketing, social media, community building, digital strategic solutions and speaks globally on the same.


12 Comments on “Let’s Get Serious: Culture Fit Matters

  1. What are these 16 value factors you reference without a backlink or citation and is one of them the missing #3 on the list? Because data relies on values, too. Only I trust math way more than, say, whatever unspecified result my culture committee comes up with. Seriously.

    1. Matt, I’m happy to share more sources with you and I believe Todd has addressed the typo. Thanks for pointing that out.

      1. If the sources were in the original post I’d have never noticed the typo. I was looking for an explanation into the 36 Chambers of the Sourcing Shaolin or whatever it was, since I can’t find a ton of data on anything involving EB that isn’t fire walled or thinly veiled product marketing.

        1. So do you want sources on the individual values associated with company culture or sources and data related to Employer Branding? Happy to supply either/both.

  2. Is culture the new method of exclusion? With few tribal exceptions the majority of our great accomplishments (as human kind) emerged because of acculturation, the mixing of diverse cultures, leading to evolving cultures. This seems piece seems to take a myopic approach.

    1. Jim, I’m trying to catch a flight so will respond more thoroughly later, but 2 quick things:

      1) Recruiting is somewhat of an exclusionary process, is it not? Organizations work hard to attract the many to hire the few. There are all kinds of things companies use as basis to exclude, and yes, culture can be one of them. I’d argue to a certain degree, it should be one of them.

      2) Culture is dynamic and evolves with each hire you make. The impact each hire has on the overall organizational culture obviously will depend on various factors such as the number of employees and roles. That said, overall organizational culture *is* a mixing of the subcultures found in the various teams and regions in the organization.

      3) I disagree that the majority of our accomplishments are as a result of acculturation, though I certainly respect your opinion. It is still possible to effect change in organizational culture (and at times, wise); but deliberate culture change as a result of hiring first requires *understanding* your culture and mapping recruiting changes according to existing culture… which seems as though that is still essentially hiring for cultural fit.

      My overarching point is that hiring for values to the exclusion of other important cultural factors is myopic.

      1. Crystal, a few points:
        1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful reply!
        2. Travel safe.
        3. I think the fact that recruitiment is an exclusionary process is part of the problem. It starts with the logic that we should be reviewing and interviewing to “exclude” candidates, when, it is my unsubstantiated belief, that interviewing for “inclusion” is the better, but more difficult mindset. This allows companies to supplement and evolve their cultures (accultuartion). This requires understanding that no culuture is ever perfect, and can always improve. I agree with your beleif that culture and dynamic change and evolve with each hire, however, there is almost always a bias that one certain culture is superior to another, and there in lies the flaw.
        4. I’m sorry you disagree, but math, agriculture, transportation, medicine, philosophy, music, etc. etc. etc., all have their roots in accultural evolution. I’m a history dude, so I would be happy to provide speciics if you like, but will just throw out how 0 changed the world out there as an example.
        Thanks again for the food for thought, I love that we, as a community are engaging in these discussions!

  3. You don’t cite what you’re referring to in the opener, but since I just wrote an article about the “death of culture fit” I’ll assume that may have been your reference material. If so, I’d encourage you to lose the quotes on “thought leader”, in fact lose the term altogether. Not helpful for your story to take shots, and not something I’d ever use to define myself. Secondly, I’d encourage you to re-read the article and go beyond the headline. I’m making a case that the term “culture fit” has been twisted into an exclusionary crutch in many organization. A tribal catch all to disqualify candidates that don’t look/think/act like the interviewer. I then examined how three companies are thinking about this and reframing their recruiting process to attempt to remove unconscious bias. I’m not making a case culture doesn’t exist, which your post seems to infer. Perhaps we have different view on culture. That’s fine. But trying to take a swipe at someone to strengthen your point kinda diminishes your argument.

    1. I’m referring to comments made at a conference, which I believe took your article and misapplied it. If I took issue with your article, I’d talk to you directly and link to it in my piece so people could get full context. This isn’t junior high. But like the grade school game of telephone, I think some have looked at your article’s headline and ran with it, or didn’t fully understanding what you were driving at.

      I did read your article and so fully understand that’s not what you were saying. I agree “culture fit” is misunderstood and misapplied, which is my point in writing more about it. Next time, maybe talk with me first and see what I mean before “schooling me” online. When you messaged me after, I was more than willing to tell you exactly what I meant, why I wrote this and why I’ll be writing about it again. I’m glad we’ve set time to discuss this further. Have a good weekend, Lars.

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