One of the quintessential debates in hiring is “cultural fit vs. skill set.” You likely have an understanding of what this means already, but to clarify: “Cultural fit” would be a hire that maybe doesn’t have every bullet point within the job description, but their personality, work ethic, and approach fits the best with the team -- so they might need to grow into aspects of the role, but their interaction with the team and overall attitude will make them a good addition. “Skill set” is simply someone that would be able to hit the ground running on Day 1 because they have all the skills necessary to do the job. Ideally, you want to land candidates who have both the cultural fit and the skill set -- assessments are actually a very powerful tool to help in that regard -- but that’s not always the case.
Now there is, of course, some debate between which factor is better in the long term but much of the literature usually favours culture fit because someone aligned with your culture tends to perform well once in the role. We’re not claiming someone with great skills wouldn’t perform well, but you’ve probably worked with very-skilled, very-intelligent people who didn’t fit with the team … and it’s often hard for them to go far and make the team great, simply because the psychological buy-in isn’t quite there. So if you want to hire for culture fit, how do you do so effectively? And what possible issues should you be aware of using this hiring tactic?
What is culture?
"Culture” is an amorphous term in business -- it means many different things to many different people. But by and large, it’s a set of rules and values that govern how an organization treats each individual and gets big projects done. The first step to figuring out if someone is a good culture fit should be sitting down and mapping it out yourself so you fully understand what your culture and values are and how to communicate them succinctly. And remember, there are many different types and takes on culture across different industries.
For example: Years ago, there was an article about how hard everyone at Amazon works. It drew some negative attention because of issues around work-life balance. But when it came out, others pointed out that this is a specific type of culture: Big ideas, and working long hours to make them a reality. That culture isn’t for everyone, but it draws in a certain type of individual, and it’s a form of employer branding for Amazon.
Culture can mean thousands of different things, from work from home opportunities to free tacos to onsite childcare to wearing jeans to the moral underpinnings of the company. If you know what matters most in your organization, the key is to map the hiring process to consistently reinforce those values. Then you’ll attract candidates who want that type of culture, and hiring for cultural fit becomes easier.
7 steps to hire for culture fit
It's one thing to say you want to focus on culture fit but what does that really mean? How can you translate the culture in your office into an interview setting to see if it's a match? There are several ways to test out a candidate but one way is to follow these 7 steps:
1) Ensure you have a set of values as discussed above - What is your culture and mission and how do they translate into what you value as a company?
2) Reference these company values in job descriptions (and even parts of them in job ads).
3) Discuss the values during the interviews. This can either be worked in naturally into the conversation or brought up directly so the candidate is aware of what life in the company is like.
4) Ask for examples of how they’ve lived those values in previous roles. If they're coming from a very different working background, you could also ask this in terms of the life outside of work or even hypotheticals of what they would do.
5) Ask questions that relate directly to these values. You should pre-plan for every interview so as you are selecting your questions, think about what information you need to uncover in order to best understand a candidate's potential culture fit.
6) Make sure onboarding involves a full explanation of those values from both employees and leaders. Again, this could be done directly as a training module on the company culture and expectations or it can be a more informal conversation with HR or their manager.
7) Schedule a meeting within their first month in the role to discuss how everything is going and how well they feel they've adjusted to the company and team. If there is a clash, it's best to know about it quickly so steps can be put in place to address it. Maybe the team needs some team building activities or an event after work to bond the new hire into the fold a little more.
Some concerns to consider
Harvard Business Review actually wrote an article a few years ago entitled “Stop hiring for cultural fit,” with a central argument being lack of diversity -- both racial and gender diversity, but also diversity of thought. And, indeed, SHRM once questioned if hiring for cultural fit perpetuates bias.
You want someone that fits into your culture and your teams, yes; in Presidential elections, we often talk about this quality of “wanting to get a beer with” someone. That does (and should!) factor into hiring, but you also don’t want teams that all look and think the same. That’s called “homophily,” and it can be a recipe for your company to be disrupted -- because it’s hard to see outside the box or perceive threats when everyone internally is so similar.
So, while hiring for cultural fit is valuable, be aware that it can create a culture of sameness, and make sure you’re avoiding that potential outcome. A good way to test for this is with assessments so you can see more clearly how people are similar and different and create a team of complementary personalities without making one that's too homogeneous.
The best outcome is to find someone with the right skills who also works within your teams and your broader culture -- who knows what matters and can get the job done. You find these people by designing a standard, effective, consistent hiring process. That involves similar question banks or using a structured interview process, using a diversity of sourcing channels, formal assessments, and understanding what you need for a role culturally and skill-wise. It's great to protect a company's core values but remember that this needs to be balanced with enough diversity in the workplace to be productive in the long run. Once you create a consistent talent acquisition process, you may even find that you're no longer asking the question, "culture or skill?" Instead, you'll hopefully end up getting both.