Workplace Culture

The Big Lie of Hiring for Cultural Fit

By Kris Dunn

Dec. 20, 2015

You know the drill. You did the work sourcing great candidates, selling them on the opportunity at your company with the mission, the vision — the whole deal. You took the time to set up a live interview with the hiring manager.

Then the post-interview feedback came back: They didn’t like the candidate. You did the reasonable thing and asked why, at which point you got this gem from the hiring manager:

“I just didn’t think she was a fit.”

Your first reaction is to yell. Then you recover and ask them why the candidate wasn’t a fit, at which point the glittering generalities start flying related to your company’s culture and the candidate’s perceived fit with that culture — from the hiring manager’s perspective, of course. 

To defend yourself and your team from this excuse for not hiring the right candidate, it’s important to get your arms around the concept of 'fit' and prevent hiring managers from using 'fit' as a utility tool to discard candidates with reckless abandon.

Everyone thinks fit for culture is important. But when you start talking about “fit,” too many times it’s code for the following: You have to be (young/look good/have gone to my school/have energy/seem like me) to work here.

To defend yourself and your team from this excuse for not hiring the right candidate, it’s important to get your arms around the concept of “fit” and prevent hiring managers from using “fit” as a utility tool to discard candidates with reckless abandon. 

Let’s start with “cultural fit.” Some companies try to define their culture by corporate values. Others try to describe what new employees will experience on their first day after joining the company.

It’s hard to capture the essence of your culture by the presence of a pingpong table or a barista. It’s even harder to accurately capture your culture via words that could be featured in a “Successories” poster in your hallway. 

That’s because many of the company values you’ve identified are hard to measure. A better way to measure cultural fit in your organization is to ask the following question: “What do all high performers in our company— across all positions — have in common?”

In organizational design circles, the answer to this simple question creates a common language called “potential factors,” which are similar to competencies, but are the same across all jobs in your company. They show what it really takes to be successful amid the chaos in your company; they’re the same for every job in your workplace.

Do this and do it well, and you’ll have a single set of competencies to guide your conversations on “cultural fit.”

Of course, managers are a crafty bunch. Some who are likely to decline candidates for “fit” don’t always point to your company’s culture as the reason. Sometimes they question the candidate’s willingness to do the work in question with the following gem:

“He wasn’t a fit. He’s not going to be satisfied with this job. I think he’ll be bored.”

What’s the solution to that? Most of us are believers in the behavioral interview, but if I had only five minutes with a candidate, I’d ask them the following two questions, both of which help you address fit when it comes to potential job satisfaction:

“Tell me when you have been most satisfied in your career” and “Tell me when you have been least satisfied in your career.”

Assuming you like the background and experiences of the candidate and are confident they can do the job, you really need to evaluate only if your company, the specific opportunity and the candidate are a fit for each other. These questions help you determine that.

Once you get that, you’ll have what you need. Say the candidate likes a lot of structure, but all you can provide is that circus you call a company? Move on. If the candidate likes to play pingpong for four hours a day, but your CEO walks around evaluating if people are working hard enough by how unhappy they look? Probably not going to work out.

Ask motivational fit questions this way (and train your managers to do the same), and you’ll move away from generalities related to potential candidate satisfaction.

We get it. You never want to hear “He just wasn’t a fit” again. To arrive at that happy place, you’ve got to do some organizational design work associated with cultural and motivational fit, train your managers, and then have a set candidate breakdown process designed to force hiring managers away from the generalities.

Stop holding the bag when it comes to great candidates and their “fit.” Do the work, and you’ll end up with a more diverse workforce capable of helping your company reach its potential.

Kris Dunn, the chief human resources officer at Kinetix, is a Workforce contributing editor.

Schedule, engage, and pay your staff in one system with