Does culture fit matter if your candidate rocks?

Does culture fit matter if your candidate rocks?

Years ago, a colleague of ours pulled up a law firm’s website. He asked us to identify which lawyer in the firm seemingly “didn’t fit.” We scanned the page and lo and behold, it was lots of (predominantly) men in suits. Near the lower right, one lawyer looked like he was just playing a game of hacky-sack.

“That’s my friend from college,” he told us. “Doesn’t fit in at all to the base culture, yet loves it and outperforms a lot of his colleagues.”

It was funny to see the difference represented visually, but it brings up a bigger question in the HR/hiring space: we talk about culture a lot. We’ve been talking about it even more in the past five years. But sometimes, a killer candidate doesn’t necessarily fit with the overall culture. And when that happens,  how do you start analyzing what to do?

Should culture fit or having the best possible resume take precedence?

We’d love to give you a quick and simple answer but this question is one that has been heavily debated. At the core of any hire, you want to bring on the person with the best skills and the one who can become productive the fastest. One common argument is that everything can be taught. Usually this means that technical skills can be improved but personality and temperament are far harder to change, making them more important to get right from the start. But when the chips are down and an unfilled position is dragging down productivity, do you want to delay to find the person with the personality you need or do you want someone who can jump in and clear out the backlog of work? The best option, of course, is to hire for both but there are pros and cons of each approaches to be aware of. 

Read more: How does corporate culture impact employee engagement?

What are the benefits to hiring for culture?

There are many, including:

  • Reduced turnover
  • Higher job satisfaction (sometimes)
  • More alignment with values and goals of the organization
  • Potential for increased collaboration

When you hire for culture fit, there’s a sense that you are building a community of employees who are motivated to achieve the same mission. Silos weaken and inter-departmental communication increases. After all, don’t you want people who are actively engaged with contributing to their teams and company?

What are the benefits of hiring for skill?

Again, there are a number, including:

  • Shorter learning curve
  • Potential increase in productivity
  • Decreased training costs
  • Introduction of new skills into the workforce

When you hire for technical skill, you can fill in some of the gaps in your current workforce and hire for the skills that will help propel a team forward. These employees are often able to hit the ground running and can bring new ways of performing with them.

At the end of the day, company attitude matters

While we know there is great power in having friends at work — having a friend at work who you see every day and interact with has been equated to $100,000 in salary in some surveys — we also know that many people in organizations are less concerned about the overall culture and more concerned with their specific work. There’s been some evidence people don’t really want to collaborate more broadly; they want to get their stuff done.

If you think that’s your type of culture — every organization varies — then you absolutely need to hire more for competence and background than culture fit.

If, on the other hand, your organization is very much about bonding activities, collaboration, hanging out outside of work, believing in the same message, rituals, etc… culture fit is likely to be a much more powerful indicator of success to consider in the hiring process.

But what about the candidate’s opinion?

This is an increasing issue that not all employers have embraced yet. Consider the linger effects of the 2008 recession. Many young workers now entering the workforce were either impacted by the recession or saw their families struggle.  As a result, they might have a much different stance on work from observing their parents battle with late night emails, lost nest eggs, long hours, etc. This is where we get into the “passion over profit” discussion often associated with Millennials and Gen Z.

While admittedly nuanced, the bottom line is that younger generations coming up are thinking more about overall culture fit as how they select you, which means you need to be thinking about cultural fit too in order to make sure you don’t lose some of the best candidates.

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Where does that leave us?

To hire or not to hire. Much of the decision depends on the goals of the department a candidate is joining and the attitudes of a company. One universal truth, however, is that you want to hire people who will help unite teams, not divide them. Sometimes someone who isn’t a clear culture fit can bring change and innovation. Other times a bad match can cause tension and stress that leads to turnover. With the cost of a bad hire on everyone’s minds, it’s important during a recruitment search that a hiring manager have a clear vision of what the open position is like and what sort of fit they should be looking for. Remember, resumes are a positive self-report that don’t necessarily tell the whole story. Using assessments, work based tests, reference checks, and homework assignments can also help uncover better insights about a candidate and shed more light on how they will interact with a new team.

At the end of the day, the most important factor to keep in mind is the company’s approach to culture and the value they place on developing it. Often, those attitudes can help guide a hiring manager as they decide which skills are more important to the success of a candidate, soft skills or technical ones.

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