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Are you an actor or a faker?

Hiring for culture fit crucial – but knowing whether or not a candidate is genuine isn't easy

By Ian Hendry

I had an interesting conversation with a new member of the Strategic Capability Network last week.

This unnamed senior practitioner provides executive coaching as part of his consulting practice and we were discussing the issue of cultural fit. Research from the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) claims that turnover, based on poor cultural fit, costs organizations between 50 per cent and 60 per cent of the departing employee’s annual salary.

Needless to say, HR’s ability to evaluate cultural fit has significant financial implications. I am quite certain that some sophisticated organizations have developed some thoughtful behavioural questions designed to test cultural suitability. A recent Harvard Business Review brief, for example, offered the following questions:

  • What type of culture do you thrive in?
  • What values are you drawn to and what's your ideal workplace?
  • Why do you want to work here?
  • What best practices would you bring with you from another organization?
  • Tell me about a time when you worked with/for an organization where you felt you were not a strong culture fit. Why was it a bad fit?

We know from experience that many new applicants, understanding the importance of cultural fit in the hiring process, search company websites to obtain lists of corporate values in order to discern the likely behaviours required. Being prepped to withstand the scrutiny of an interviewer is vital to the applicant’s success, as it always has been, but exactly how authentic are those applicants?

For example, if collaboration is a key organizational value — who doesn’t require collaboration? — people who have a genuine, authentic belief in the value of collaborative work will be a stronger culture fit than those who are more comfortable as individual contributors. Determining whether someone is genuine is not easy.

In my conversation, my practitioner friend mentioned a person who is struggling with the corporate role she is required to play. Let me emphasize the language here — required to play. An actor on a stage plays a role. Think of your favourite actor and consider the different roles he has played in his career?

The thrill for great actors is to be forced to play characters vastly different from themselves. Actors who are the most convincing are frequently the ones who receive Oscar nominations. Actors walk away when filming is over and resume being themselves, but imagine the anxiety of executives who are forced to play a role every day that they do not like, or worse still, a role in which they do not believe. What are the inner struggles with which they must wrestle every day?

In effect, in order to survive, they put on masks every day to hide their true selves. This leads to what I think is an important question — are they just playing a role for a while? As the head of people in an organization, does playing a role, or faking it, really matter? If I have executives playing roles which are convincing to employees, isn’t that all that matters? Is it important if a leader demonstrating empathy really does genuinely care about employee well-being? More often perhaps, the need for results at any cost is what leaders learn as the survival guide, so at the end of the day, does authenticity have great value?

Right now, on a much bigger stage, we regularly read about substantive downsizings by organizations across different sectors. Organizations talk about 200 job losses or 500 job losses, which are labelled as business realities. Newspapers throw out numbers of faceless people, yet most have families and financial obligations and now, without employment, it can place unbearable stress on countless lives.

As good corporate citizens, if we offer outplacement, is it to assuage our guilt, and/or could it be the price of doing business in a less -than- compassionate way? So, what is the role of HR leaders in all of this? Are we actors playing roles with elements that are genuinely agonizing to us, but we go along with them because it will end at some point? Or, have we become fakers because it no longer has a bearing on our emotions?

My practitioner friend reminded me there are executives who believe authenticity really matters and that acting is no longer acceptable to them. I say, all power to those who act on the power of their convictions. Being faithful to what we truly believe, and who we truly are, shows not only self-awareness, but provides a conscience that no longer has to struggle in turmoil. We know that when personal values are genuinely aligned to those of organizations, commitment increases — as does productivity. Should our recruitment ads spell out “actors or fakers” need not apply?

Ian Hendry

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