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Is hiring for cultural fit overrated?

Candidates who don’t necessarily fit in can provide all kinds of benefits for employers

By Brian Kreissl

I have read several articles and blog posts over the last few weeks questioning whether employers should even be looking for candidates that have a strong fit with the organization’s culture. HR in particular often seems to be overly concerned with cultural fit — sometimes to the detriment of hiring a candidate for a particularly difficult-to-fill vacancy.

The idea is that obsessing over cultural fit can result in an organization that’s too homogeneous and lacks diversity. That’s a problem not only with respect to traditional diversity measures, but also in terms of diversity of thought, opinion, values, beliefs, personality, educational and professional background.

Let’s face it, if everyone in the organization is too similar in the way they think and act, there is often a tendency to engage in groupthink. Organizations that are too homogenous often find it difficult to innovate, grow and adapt to changing circumstances and market conditions.

Sometimes hiring someone who will bring a fresh perspective and different ways of doing things is an effective catalyst for driving much-needed organizational change. Hiring the occasional employee who is a bit of a maverick can sometimes help shake things up a bit and force the organization to rethink some of its policies, processes, values and assumptions.

Idealized image of organizational culture

That’s the argument in a nutshell, but I personally think there are other reasons why hiring for cultural fit isn’t always the best approach. First of all, while there’s no question organizational culture is very real and palpable — and not the touchy-feely concept many people outside HR believe it to be — I believe many organizations have an idealized image of what their culture actually is.

It seems that when many HR departments and senior leaders articulate their organization’s culture, the reality on the ground is often very different from that ivory tower image of what the corporate culture is supposed to be. As a result, some organizations end up trying to recruit to fit what they think the culture is as opposed to what it really is like.

While one could argue that doesn’t really matter because the goal is really hiring to fit the desired end state with respect to the organizational culture by recruiting people with the right attitudes, values and competencies, telling new recruits the culture is something it really isn’t can lead to disillusionment, disengagement and employee turnover.

At least when someone is informed of what the culture really is and she's aware she might not be an exact fit with the existing culture, she knows what she is getting herself into. In some respects, that functions as a realistic job preview, and the individual knows trying to change her co-workers is going to be an uphill battle.

Unique subcultures, individual adaptability

It can also be very difficult to articulate the culture of a large, geographically dispersed organization with many different locations, divisions and lines of business. Every department and location in such an organization is going to have its own unique subculture in spite of the fact that the organization has an overarching corporate culture. Recruiters and HR practitioners may only be aware of the overall corporate culture and may not be familiar with the nuances of the subculture in each function, department or location.

Another problem with hiring for cultural fit is most people are remarkably adaptable and can quite quickly learn to fit into a variety of different organizational cultures and contexts. Rejecting someone because she comes from an organization with a very different culture may result in the loss of a superstar candidate who could fit into the new organization’s culture within a very short period of time given adequate and appropriate training, onboarding and socialization.

Cultural considerations not completely disregarded

None of this is to say that cultural considerations should be completely disregarded or that soft skills and cultural fit won’t frequently make or break a candidate’s ability to be successful in a role. After all, they say people are often hired for their technical skills but fired for their lack of soft skills.

But just occasionally, organizations should consider hiring that superstar candidate who doesn’t walk, talk and act like everyone else. They certainly shouldn’t be rejecting someone out of hand just because he comes from an organization with a different culture or because she doesn’t fit in with some idealized version of what the organizational culture ought to be.

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Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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