Cultural fit should be considered along with job competencies when making hiring decisions. If there’s a mismatch, the person hired will not last long; a disaster for all parties.
In many ways, corporate culture is like personality. It comprises the values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors shared by a group of people who work together, defining the organization’s brand personality. As brand personality has emerged as a key competitive advantage; hiring for cultural fit with the brand has been recognized as vital for success.
Some employers provide descriptions of their corporate culture on company websites. Although that’s a good starting point, it’s up to the candidate to ask the right questions to uncover important cultural attributes. Common cultural values include: teamwork, integrity, and respect for individuals. Various companies share some of the same cultural values, but what distinguishes them is how much values are emphasized and rewarded within the organization.
Corporate culture is really a set of shared values and expectations. It’s what you think others will do, and what they expect you to do. Shared expectations enable people to work together productively for the success of the organization. Alignment with the corporate culture helps people achieve success in their individual roles and experience job satisfaction.
Some companies use cross-functional teams for day-to-day business. Others work functionally, but use cross-functional teams for specific projects. Companies also vary in the amount of time they spend on internal communications. They all communicate externally with customers, vendors, and investors, but they don’t all put the same effort into communicating internally. This is an important factor for cultural fit as there are some people who are very good at keeping everyone in the loop, and others who are focused on tasks, typically preferring to communicate only at milestones or when a job is finished.
Talent Development is another important cultural factor. Many of our clients expect anyone who is hired in a management role to devote significant time to coaching and developing talent. A candidate may have a strong skills set, but if they lack the motivation to develop others, they will not be a good fit for that organization.
Most employers are skilled at assessing job fit. Normally, after assessing a group of candidates, there are one or two individuals that stand out due to their work experience, qualifications, and performance during the interview process; they said the right things and left interviewers feeling confident about making the decision to hire them.
Cultural fit is more difficult to assess. It has to do with the candidate’s compatibility with the organization’s values and the way it operates.
The role of retained executive search in assessing cultural fit
Executive recruiters often know people currently with the hiring organization, as well as past employees of the company. The recruiter will have met with the hiring manager and knows something about that person’s communication and management style. Often there are four or five finalist candidates who possess roughly the same qualifications. Cultural fit is often the criteria that determines which of those candidates has the best chance of success.
Paul Miller, Managing Director with Kincannon & Reed says, “I like to meet with multiple people within the organization, not just with the CEO. Ideally, I like to talk with people in peer positions as well as direct reports in order to understand the important cultural factors. I also like to walk around the facility to get a sense for the work environment.”
“For example, at one client meeting there was fire drill and we had to evacuate the building”, Miller explains. “After the all-clear signal was given I noticed a man holding the front door for people and thanking them as they entered. He was a senior corporate executive. That spoke volumes about the organization’s culture. Another client for a CFO search had an open-office environment. I knew that would not fit everyone. I was careful to provide candidates with a realistic portrayal of the company so they could self-select out if the environment was not right for them.”
Once an executive recruiter has an understanding of cultural attributes, he or she can begin to evaluate candidates for behaviors that promote the organization’s culture.
Often the recruiter has a network of contacts that can provide insight into any ‘disconnects’ between how top management describes the culture and how it is actually experienced by employees.
Avoiding cultural mismatches
The challenge for employers is to possess enough insight into their own cultures to be able to articulate it to candidates. One way employers can uncover clues to their cultural values is to look at the highest performers who have been with the company for a long period of time. Find out what has made them successful.
Structure interviews with behavioral questions are also a tool to screen for cultural fit. Many cultural attributes are behaviorally based, and the executive recruiter can design questions that elicit information from the candidate’s past job experiences. Examples could include: “Describe a work environment where you have had the most success? Give me some examples of how you have resolved conflicts at work?”
Miller recommends that candidates have their antennas tuned for cultural issues during the interview process. “After a candidate has interviewed with a client I ask, How did what you saw compare with what we discussed before your interview. Were there any surprises?” He recommends that candidates ask, “What is it like to work here?”
Reference interviews provide an opportunity to gather cultural fit information from someone who knows the candidate well, and has worked with him or her previously. Explain the organization’s cultural values to the person providing the reference and ask for their views on whether it is an environment where the candidate would be successful.
Some organizations use assessment instruments to provide another data point on cultural fit. Unlike behavior based interview questions, testing must be validated to prove that it does not discriminate against legally protected applicants.
How much weight should be given to cultural fit?
Dave Jensen, Managing Director for Kincannon & Reed, thinks equal weight should be given to deciding whether a candidate is qualified to do the job and whether there is cultural fit within the organization, “The first cut should be based on who can do the job best, but the second cut should be who fits the culture. When those two factors are equal, choose the person who fits the culture best.”
Jenson recommends that employers look beyond the basic job requirements to assess how well a candidate fits the next role in the organization. “A chemist may be required to use a very sophisticated and expensive instrument, but the next role as Director of Chemistry may emphasize managing people or projects. When you consider the skill set needed in the next career path position it may point to a different candidate who will be a better long-term fit for the company”, he advises.
A leading Internet shoe and clothing retailer has fueled growth through customer service and an offbeat culture. One of the company’s cultural values is to “create fun and a little weirdness”. It has a rigorous interview process followed by meetings with a cross section of employees to find people who will fit with the culture. The company values cultural fit so much that it will pay new hires a $2,000 bonus to leave if they are not fully confident that the company is right for them.
Ideally, organizational culture supports a positive, productive work environment. Employees who share the values of an organization report higher job satisfaction and tend to outperform those in environments that lack a common set of goals. Executive recruiters can be valuable partners to help companies’ recruit and evaluate candidates who possess the necessary skills as well as the behaviors that exemplify the organizations’ culture.
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