Fit more important than skills

In an environment where teamwork is the rule, culture fit is more important then ever
By David Brown
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 07/29/2003


job competition comes down to two fairly evenly matched candidates. The first doesn’t quite have all of the skills you would like for the position but you’re positive he’ll fit in with the culture of the organization. A little extra training and special attention should get him up to speed in short order.

The other candidate has every skill set you’re looking for, and a proven track record of applying those skills, but you’re not as confident about how well she’ll connect with the rest of the group or fit into the organization. Who should you hire?

According to recruiting experts and HR practitioners who talked with

Canadian HR Reporter,

it doesn’t matter how good the resume looks. Spend the extra money on training, if need be, and take the person who’ll fit in with the group.

“Hiring people is very easy. Getting rid of them is very expensive and ultimately, it will come to that if there is no fit at the beginning,” says Alan Davis, a Quebec-based recruiter.

After 25 years in the recruitment and selection business, Davis has turned this philosophy into a hard and fast rule.

“Never hire if you think there is going to be a mismatch between the candidate and the culture,” he says. For a person to be successful in an organization, their behaviours must complement those of the people they are working with. Behaviours are driven by values and you are not going to be able to change a person’s values, he says.

“You should never compromise on the values but you can certainly compromise on the technical knowledge. And it is absolutely a ‘never’ because the values won’t change.”

The rule applies no matter the industry and no matter the complexity of the job.

Davis was the architect of the 1992 Canadian astronaut recruitment campaign and even in that case, where the client was obviously looking for someone with extraordinary talents and skills, it was just as important finding someone with the right personality and values, he says.

“They wanted a mature, well-rounded individual. You attach that to a high-level of technical ability, then you have a good candidate.”

Jenny Cruickshank, HR manager for Avery Dennison’s Spartan International facility in London, Ont., has learned from experience just how important it is to find someone who is a good culture fit. She cites one recent hire where the decision was made based on skills and experience.

“It definitely isn’t a culture fit and that has been very difficult for the individual,” she says. “It is much easier to fix a skill set than an individual. I can’t fix his problem. I can’t send him on a course.”

In this case, the person came from a large corporate environment and the 90-employee Spartan facility still retains many of the small family-business characteristics from the days before it was bought out by the large multi-national Avery Dennison. Things don’t move as quickly as he would like and he is not accustomed to their relaxed and open communication style, she says. A similar situation arose in at her last job, she says. The company hired someone who was obviously highly motivated and had an impressive track record in a corporate environment. Here too, the organization was smaller. The new hire impressed in the early days making some progressive changes. But he soon was going into other departments trying to make similar changes. Inevitably, he alienated many of the other managers.

When someone isn’t a good fit, it usually shows up in strained relations with peers rather than subordinate employees, she says. And differences usually aren’t visible in the first three months, so people get through the probationary period before anyone realizes there is a fundamental problem, she says.

At Avery Dennison, the company’s leadership team has talked about the importance of culture fit — though it is not easy to define in hard and fast terms, she admits.

The selection process is also structured to try and assess fit. There are always at least two informal interviews specifically intended to explore the candidate’s fit with the organization. One of those interviews is always away from the office. “It gives us a sense of how they interact in a social setting, and you get a better perspective of what they are offering.” Cruickshank is not always present, but she has coached hiring managers on behavioural interviewing.

And yet, even though the company says culture fit is important, the hiring manager or team on occasion either overlooks cultural mismatches, or doesn’t look hard enough to get beyond the candidate’s well-practiced interview skills to see what, if any, cultural problems may exist. Potential personality or culture fit problems may be evident during the interview process but they tend to get minimized. “I know I’ve been guilty of it,” she says. She suspects that is what happened in this last case.

“Good companies have always emphasized good fit,” says Maureen Neglia, senior manager of recruitment strategies for RBC Financial Group in Toronto. But for a while, during the dotcom boom, some organizations decided skills were more important.

“They wanted to go places quickly and it was all about having the latest and greatest technology.” Some recruiters or hiring managers didn’t care how difficult it would be to work with a person so long as he had the skills sets needed to finish the latest project. They didn’t care how horrible he was to work with, so long as he could work the latest java product.

But today, culture fit, or the ability to work well with colleagues and co-workers, is more important than ever simply because so much more work is being done in a team setting, she says. The need to leverage limited resources to maximum effect requires more teamwork, and therefore recruiters are looking for people who are team players and a good culture fit. It is certainly what Royal Bank does. “RBC looks for the right person for the job, not necessarily the most talented,” she says.

“I would have to say that this is the new way of hiring employees. If it is not already being done, this is how large employers are going to do their hiring in the future.”

Jason Braam, HR manager at Georgetown, Ont.-based Howell Pipe and Supply, has been closely involved in almost every job competition in the last five years at the company.

He leaves little doubt about what factors he considers when making a hiring decision or recommendation.

The best hiring decisions are based on the candidate’s fit for the organization and not the skill sets or experience he brings to the new job, he says. “Experience gets a very, very low rating for me. You can grow experience but you can’t change someone innately,” he says.

“We have hired people away from our competitors in the past. We found that someone’s experience in our industry or in a particular job does not hold a lot of water,” he says.

“We had a sales rep who did substantial volume with our competitor. We thought this guy looks great and we hired him on. But he just did not do it for us because the way he did business was different from how we do business.”

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