If the war for talent has illuminated anything, it’s that you just can’t hire someone on the basis of skills alone. Hiring for culture fit must be part of the equation.
Many employers today are still holding out for candidates who have the perfect skills and experience (despite how hard it is to find them) because they’re in search of peace of mind. A comfort in knowing that the person they’ve hired can do exactly what the job needs. But even when they’re able to snag these “purple unicorns” as they’re sometimes called, leaders run into a new issue: raw skill isn’t enough if new employees don’t share the values of the company.
As it turns out, company culture has a material effect on an employee’s ability to do their job. If a hire’s sensibilities misalign with their new colleagues, they will struggle to acclimate to “the way we do things around here.” One study of an insurance firm’s hiring practices found that poor cultural fit negated the benefits of a new hire’s experience. Some of the most experienced hires even needed to relearn tasks they had performed for years at other firms.
This misalignment opens the door for potential team dysfunction, and it doesn’t exactly engender company loyalty, either. Turnover as a consequence of poor cultural fit can cost the company 50 to 60% of an employee’s annual salary.
Many hiring managers now test for candidates’ cultural aptitude in the hiring process to circumvent these issues before they can occur. But even using company culture as your true north for hiring is complicated because the question then becomes, “What role do you want new hires to play in that culture?”
Currently, there’s a debate over which is better between two prominent philosophies: hiring for culture fit and hiring for culture add, the latter of which is sometimes also called “values fit” or “cultural contribution.” Today, we’re going to take a look at the pros and cons of each approach.
Hiring for culture fit
This hiring philosophy applies a high level of focus towards making sure new hires align with the company’s mission, vision, and values. Skills and experience still matter, of course. Culture fit hires must meet a desired level of professional expertise. But as employees with more specialized skill sets become harder to track down, hiring managers find themselves repeating a common refrain: “Skills can be taught, but attitude can’t.”
Whether or not a candidate gets along with their colleagues is just one piece of the culture fit puzzle. Hiring for culture fit requires an intimate understanding of your work environment, team dynamics, and the established (and practiced) values of the company’s culture. Through this process, you should be able to identify candidates who will naturally thrive in your culture’s conditions and rituals.
For example, if yours is a workplace where projects constantly change but deadlines never do, your culture fit hires would perform well, if not their best, under high-pressure conditions and have healthy coping mechanisms for dealing with stress.
You can’t underestimate the value of a someone who just “gets it” right off the bat. It’s said nearly half of the success a new hire demonstrates in the first 18 months of employment can be chalked up to how well they fit in with their peers. So, if you can bring on a new hire who fits your culture, you’re likely to have made a wise investment the company’s future.
Per a study from the University of Iowa, employees that are cultural fits are a gift that keeps on giving. These employees excel in just about every area you could want. Not only are they happier and more productive, but they tend to stick around for longer too. The added time these employees stay with the company means they have a higher chance of reaching their greatest potential.
A less experienced culture fit hire presents a bit of a trade off. Yes, they will be able to quickly mobilize with your teams and jump into the swing of things, but they still have a learning curve to overcome. While this may not be a big issue if you’re looking at culture fit hires in the long term, it can still be vexing for departments bringing on new team members in the middle of big sprints.
Another issue is that unless interviewers have a clear understanding what does and does not constitute a “fit,” this process can easily go awry. In lieu of clarity over the values of company culture, things like the beer test (“Would I have a beer with this person?”) and the airport test (“Would I want to be stuck at the airport with them?”) will all too often become shorthand for determining culture fit.
Candidates’ likeability and fun factor are not good measures of their potential for success. These informal gauges are extremely prone to bias and discriminatory thinking. Left unchecked, this will hurt the company in the long run. Culture will grow stagnant as diversity–in its many forms–is discouraged in favor of candidates who “walk like us and talk like us.”
The culture add approach
Whereas culture fit looks at how new hires can fit the cultural mold of the company, culture add hiring seeks out candidates that can change the mold’s shape for the better. Put another way, hiring for culture fit is like a jigsaw puzzle, with each new employee filling in a piece of a pre-designed image. Culture add hiring is a magic eye illustration, with new hires coming together to create entirely new images against the backdrop of an already richly-designed company culture.
Culture is obviously still top of mind of mind when it comes to hiring, but managers are less rigid about finding a specific type of person to bring in. Instead, diversity is the through line guiding each hiring decision. Not just in terms of demographic characteristics of candidates but also their thought process and beliefs.
For this reason, many view culture add as a direct response to the pitfalls of hiring for culture fit. The logic follows that bringing in new people who share values, but have different backgrounds and viewpoints, and getting them to work together can uproot bias and create stronger teams.
If you do it right, hiring for culture add raises the ceiling of your innovation potential. Not only do you get the aforementioned benefits of culture fit hires, you have the added boon that diverse workforces bring.
Time and again, research shows that diverse teams give companies the competitive edge in the marketplace. When teams are diverse across race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and even individual expertise, they outperform homogenous groups at solving complex, nonroutine problems. This increased capacity for problem-solving makes the company better equipped to handle disruption and complications as a result of unexpected industry changes and marketplace conditions.
This emphasis on diversity is also appealing to younger talent like millennial and Gen Z, who want to work at companies that accurately reflect the world they live in. Each new generation is more diverse than the last, and Gen Z (just now entering the labor force) is the most ethnically diverse generation yet. As Forbes contributor Lars Schmidt notes, culture add hiring is a way the company can reflect “their desire to ensure all voices, opinions, views, upbringings, etc. are reflected by their staff makeup.”
Although culture add hiring tries to overcome the shortcomings of culture fit, there is no truly objective, bias-free method of hiring. Any efforts the company makes towards diverse hiring require a structured approach. Otherwise, you’ll fall into exactly the same stagnancy you’re trying to avoid with hiring for culture fit.
Per SHRM, companies must develop a standardized interview process around their ideal candidates’ culture add qualities to circumvent interviewer bias. This approach involves rigorously defining company values, crafting behavioral questions that gauge both candidates’ explicit qualifications and previous experiences, and establishing a framework for distinguishing “great” answers from merely “good” ones. You can read more about that methodology here.
Another thing to note, even when you’re hiring to disrupt, there is such a thing as too much disruption. Employees can wind up feeling alienated if their ideas aren’t allowed to mature before being reiterated and improved. It’s not enough to have an organization full of diverse faces, you have to take steps to make sure their voices feel valued, too.
So, which is better?
Culture add, with its emphasis on diversity and disruption, would appear to have a clear advantage for the way it promotes a constant influx of new ideas and perspectives. However, culture fit is not a philosophy that explicitly discourages diversity.
It’s only when culture fit thinking is misapplied–out of ignorance or lack of intellectual rigor–that it becomes an exclusionary tool. For many companies, it can be greatly beneficial to have teams of people with similar sensibilities who naturally mobilize around strategic goals in a highly-specific type of environment.
So is there a “right” way to do it? Not necessarily. Managers must be intentional about the role new hires play in overall business strategy. As such, there will contexts where both culture fit and culture add hiring makes sense for what the company needs. What is certain, however, is companies will be using culture to inform their talent acquisition approach for the foreseeable future.