In just a decade, hiring for ‘culture fit’, once touted as a competitive advantage and bedrock of corporate recruiting, is facing increasing criticism. From Facebook to enterprise software leader Atlassian, some of the world’s most influential companies are moving on from the bias-ridden and tribalistic notions of ‘culture fit’.

Today, most business leaders understand that a sophisticated market strategy simply isn’t enough. As Elizabeth Stewart, Head of Executive Assessment and Development at Odgers Berndtson in London, emphasis.

“An organisation may have ambitious growth plans but how will it achieve them? Businesses alone don’t create value; people do.”

For example, high-performing mega-growth businesses like Uber achieved monumental scale but faced widespread consumer and investor scrutiny for systemic lapses in company culture.

Instead, forward-thinking firms recognise that a strong, visible culture serves as a competitive advantage because it enables an authentic consumer connection and serves as a magnet for top talent. 

At its core, the intention of hiring for culture fit is about ensuring that employees are in alignment with the vision and mission of the company. Employees that are a poor culture fit can cost an organisation 50-60% of the person’s annual salary, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

But when the organisational culture itself is complex and not easily defined, it follows that culture fit is equally amorphous and therefore difficult to assess. Employee behaviour, office design and dress code are a window to company culture but do not show the whole picture. 

The danger of unconscious bias

The concept of culture fit has increasingly come under fire because it carries the risk of unconscious bias. In a 2018 Harvard Business Review article, Patty McCord, former Chief Talent Officer at Netflix wrote: “Finding the right people is also not a matter of ‘culture fit’.  What most people really mean when they say someone is a good fit culturally is that he or she is someone they’d like to have a beer with. But people with all sorts of personalities can be great at the job you need to be done. This misguided hiring strategy can also contribute to a company’s lack of diversity.”

Workforce optimisation expert and Managing Partner of PeopleMax, Brad Wolff agrees. “We all have our own cognitive biases and are wired for cultural homogenisation. This is why you see start-ups mostly hiring single people in their twenties and early thirties.”

“The biggest problem is that while we invoke cultural fit as a reason to hire someone, it is far more common to use it to not hire someone,” believes Wharton management Professor Katherine Klein.

Tech companies like Facebook, Pandora, and Atlassian found that when interviewers were presented with a candidate who differed enough from themselves to trigger this unconscious bias, the overwhelming tendency was to label the interviewee a bad culture fit. This reductive blanket term was usually never questioned further. Over time, this practice contributed to homogenous cultures and ultimately a decline in innovation.

Growth mindset

Another complexity when it comes to culture is company size.

The larger and more siloed a firm, the more opportunities there are for culture messages from the top to not permeate all the way through.

Take Microsoft, which tripled in value thanks to a well-defined culture overhaul led by CEO Satya Nadella over the past five years. Inspired by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset, Nadella heavily evangelised the notion of ‘growth mindset’ as core to Microsoft’s future.

However, not all department heads or employees subscribe to his notion of making lifelong learning a priority.

One anonymous senior Microsoft executive said: “Middle management is a vital layer in the company that needs to embrace, live and breathe company culture. The most impressionable hires at Microsoft report to this layer and get all their day-to-day messages and culture examples from there. Yet when there is even the slightest lack of buy-in, all the culture messages from the top get corrupted,” she explained.

Values that strengthen recruitment

Forward-thinking companies, realising that culture can no longer run on auto-pilot, are going back to the drawing board to define a unified set of values to steer employee efforts and strengthen the recruitment process.

Australia-based software giant Atlassian completely reframed its recruitment approach, moving away from culture fit to the more objective ‘values fit’.

The company wanted to build a culture where everyone can bring “their truest, most authentic selves to work”.

Atlassian recognised that values need to be “worth living” for employees to embrace them and be inspired by them. They also acknowledge that people can hold similar values while exhibiting vastly different personalities, which, over time, de-homogenises a company’s culture.

Atlassian Co-founder and Co-CEO Mike Cannon-Brookes says: “Our values are our attempt at hiring people with the attributes we want. We understand that even if their skills, job roles, or industries change, the fundamental base attributes of how they treat the world, other people, and their customers won’t change.”

Atlassian pursued a complete redesign of their interview process, beginning with internal focus groups to identify which behaviours signal values alignment versus misalignment.

Another important change was selecting and training designated ‘values-fit’ interviewers on topics like structured interviewing and unconscious bias. Interviewers were balanced across demographics, job role, and geography and deliberately chosen to not be experts in the job a candidate is applying for, to ensure objectivity. Finally, the values interview carries significant weight in the recruitment process; poor results amount to a veto.

Atlassian saw a marked improvement in overall diversity with the percentage of female leaders and women in technical roles, both increasing year on year. The company recognised that as a business grows and changes, so will its culture. But “a strong set of shared values lets you flex and adapt and roll with the changes,” according to Cannon-Brookes.

When the core values that underpin company culture are clearly defined, it empowers hiring managers to identify candidates who will be a culture add, not just a culture fit, which can often lead to too many like-minded employees and complacency.

Culture add can lead to unique skills, viewpoints, and ultimately innovation.

It’s a concept that’s now embedded in the recruitment approaches at several top-tier firms. Adobe calls it “culture complement”, while IDEO refers to it as “cultural contribution”. No doubt, it’s a concept that will see further refinement and broader acceptance as the benefits become clearer.

This article is from the latest ‘Culture’ edition of the Odgers Berndtson global magazine, OBSERVE.

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Elizabeth Stewart

Elizabeth (Liz) has over 30 years as a business consultant, working for global professional services firms, and in the last 15 years focused on advising on Boards, CEOs, the C-Suite and their pipel...

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