Why You Should Steer Clear Of Culture Fit In Hiring

In an ideal world, managers looking to hire for a particular role have done a thorough job analysis. They have sat down with several high performing incumbents to dig deep and really understand the tasks they need to complete day-to-day, as well as the knowledge, skills and attributes that most parsimoniously lead to sustained outperformance on the job. Validated assessments would then be used to objectively rate candidates on each of these predetermined dimensions. Perhaps a 20-minute written assessment to determine personality traits followed by a structured interview to ascertain a candidate’s adaptability would be one simple recipe. At this stage, it is critically important to ensure that any assessment used has been thoroughly vetted; in fact, it never hurts to ask an assessment vendor for a technical manual to learn more about how reliability and validity metrics were determined (hint: it’s a bad thing if sample sizes are too small, or if the time period between measurement of the predictor variable—that is, whatever construct the assessment is measuring—and the outcomes of interest, often job performance, is exceedingly short).

But the world is not ideal. Some hodgepodge of the above often does occur in reality. Organizations almost always have assessments of some variety. These assessments, however, are often newfangled, relatively unvalidated tests claiming to measure the newest flavor of the month construct, forced upon innocent, unsuspecting HR practitioners (or even C-suite leaders) by savvy hucksters with flimsy credentials. How it is decided what characteristics should be measured is even murkier. Perhaps the COO just read an article that said humility is a panacea in organizations, so the lemmings below start scurrying about to find something—anything—that appears to assess humility, without ever actually thinking through how—or if—humility would be theoretically expected to impact job performance in a given role.

The age of recruitment pseudoscience is upon us. Whereas most organizations 30 years ago would admit that they just hire people who they like or have chemistry with, now the same process can be wrapped with a shiny bow of apparent scientific validity on top. Even if an organization is attempting to do everything correctly by outlining the concrete behaviors interviewers should probe for, just one minor flaw in the process can put the kibosh on objectivity. If there are too few interviewers for a given candidate, or if each interviewer does not independently score candidates before reconvening as a selection committee, it is still painfully easy to push through the candidate everyone likes most—all while still having the air of being “scientific.”

Throughout all the decades of organizational science’s long lifespan, there has unlikely been as pernicious of a pseudoscience construct as culture fit. On paper, one can see how it makes sense. Culture largely defines employees’ experiences within an organization; therefore, we should get people who “fit” with the culture. Ta-da!

The issues emerge, however, when measuring—or maybe better to say, not measuring—both culture and fit. Culture is a very nebulous topic, which makes it inherently tricky to measure. Current approaches to measure culture are lengthy and complex, not to mention the fact that many entrepreneurs or leaders would bristle at the notion that one could possibly capture the intricacies of their wonderful culture with a number.

With respect to fit, although it may seem simple, when one actually digs in the question becomes, “What do you actually mean by fit?” Do you mean supplementary or complementary fit? Since organizations and people are defined in different ways—organizations by culture and people by personality, to be overly stylized—how do they mesh together? Do neurotic employees “fit” with an individualistic culture or a cooperative culture? As you may be able to tell, truly rigorous, academic approaches to fit lead to some of the lengthier, methodologically dense papers on record. Something tells me that most managers have not thought all this through quite yet.

Yet, somehow organizations of all stripes over the past 20 years have glommed onto the idea of culture fit. But how are they actually measuring it given the sheer complexity, you ask? It turns out that the current instantiation of culture fit has largely replaced an old, yet oddly familiar, idea: hiring on likability. If Joe is similar to me, I like him. If I like him, I will recommend hiring him because it will be fun to work with him. This does not seem biased or untoward because, after all, if I am succeeding at the organization then surely other people who remind me of me will also be successful—it’s science!

Professor Lauren Rivera of Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management probed this idea further in a now famous qualitative study in 2012, which was adapted into a book years later. As inspiration for the study, Professor Rivera found that sociological studies of hiring did not explain a sizable portion of variance in actual hiring decisions. To ameliorate this, she conducted 120 interviews across three types of professional services firms—law firms, consulting firms, and investment banks—to get a better sense, on an interpersonal-level, how employees in these firms made hiring decisions.

What she found was quite startling. Across these different industries, a disproportionate amount of focus is placed on culture fit in the hiring process. In law firms, in particular, over 70% of interviewers surveyed stated that “fit” was the most important criterion for them. This may not be a problem necessarily, except for the fact that interviews detailed throughout the paper indicate that “fit” often takes the form of hiring people who are similar to the interviewer in terms of clubs participated in, schools attended, etc. The problem with this process is exemplified by a quote in the paper, from a banker who was examining a resume and excitedly stated, “She plays squash. Anyone who plays squash I love!” Squash is loads of fun. But it may not be the best metric to use for high-quality, unbiased hiring.

Organizations are defined by their people. Given that, one would expect—nay, hope—that hiring was treated in the most prudent, scientific manner possible. However, many organizations instead continue to use outdated, ineffective heuristics, leading to biased hiring decisions that often prevent top candidates from even getting a shot at proving themselves if they did not attend the right private school or become members of the appropriate country club.

But with awareness comes change—and the downfall of culture fit as a hiring metric would be a valuable change for individuals, organizations and society.

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