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The dangers of recruiting for cultural fit

Growing numbers of firms are hiring according to cultural fit. But this could be a gateway to bias

All buzzwords in business are followed by a bandwagon. And this is certainly true of the current trend in HR circles to ‘recruit for cultural fit’. No doubt inspired by tech giants like Google, who have declared their desire to cultivate intangibles such as ‘Googliness’, many other organisations are now proclaiming the power of prioritising personality over technical capabilities.

The result: one in five (17%) employers say they wouldn’t hire a candidate if they were not the right cultural fit for them, according to a survey by totaljobs. Indeed, there is a commercial argument in favour of this approach, with a growing body of research showing that culture can help recruit and retain top talent. A Society for Human Resource Management study finds, for example, that poor cultural fit due to staff turnover can cost an organisation between 50% and 60% of the person’s annual salary.

However, HRDs need to tread very carefully when considering ‘cultural fit’ and ensure that by prioritising fit they don’t let bias and discrimination creep in. “Cultural fit is often used in a lazy way, by reference to some nebulous criteria about shared values, unsupported by evidence of what the culture is like in practice across any given organisation,” says Safia Boot, director of Respect At Work, who has worked as a mediator/investigator on many discrimination cases. “In the wrong, untrained hands ‘cultural fit’ is like a lethal weapon. Anyone who does not appear to ‘fit in’ based on superficial, implicit bias and stereotypical assumptions will be a risk.”

Before you even start thinking about how you can test for cultural fit during your recruitment process, you have to be able to define your culture. This does not mean sitting in a boardroom coming up with a definition alongside the CEO and other directors. As Boot explains, there is often a massive disconnect between the “aspirational” view that senior management have of culture, and the reality that most employees experience.

Thomson International’s Jayson Darby, psychology manager at the psychometric specialist, agrees. He suggests inviting a cross-section of people from your business to describe its culture. Then, once you’ve identified themes, articulate how these values are personified in terms of specific, and measurable, behaviours and traits.

“It’s all very well saying ‘our culture is fast-paced’. It sounds great, but they’re still buzzwords. Ask yourself: what behaviours are a good reflection of this culture? How does behaviour relate to success? For example, a ‘fast-paced, innovative’ culture probably means there’s a lot of ambiguity and things are constantly changing, so to succeed there you are going to need to be OK with trial and error and generating lots of ideas.” Without a rigorous, precise definition of culture, he says, you risk “veering into the dark side” when recruiting, where fit is defined as “is this candidate similar to the people we’ve got here already?”.

Once you’ve done this all-important behind-the-scenes thinking, you then need to ensure it’s carried through to the outside world: your website, your recruitment ads, your call centre, any corporate marketing material, etc. This is where you need to watch your language and ensure your strategy is joined-up.

As Danny Harmer, chief people officer at Metro Bank, says: “Small things matter. If I say that we value diversity, then I click through from a job vacancy ad to our site and all I see is white men then we need to change that. You need to think about what people will infer about culture.”

She applauds players like Google for creating “elite recruitment brands”, but warns HRDs to be careful if trying to do this: “Older people might look at ‘Googliness’, for example, and conclude ‘I can’t possibly have that’.” Part of this process is educating your entire workforce about how culture manifests, from recruiting managers to those on the frontline to website designers.

With the back end in order, you then need to consider how you are going to assess potential recruits for cultural fit. Darby advocates using psychometric testing to identify people who exhibit the desired behaviours, so you quickly pinpoint candidates that can easily play to their strengths in your environment.

In his experience, based on data gathered for clients, if you have a robust approach that is measurable and based on strengths and behaviour this naturally leads to diversity.

Catalina Schveninger, global head of resourcing at Vodafone, agrees: “If cultural fit is a very loose concept and it’s not articulated in measurable elements, there is a high probability of ‘cloning’ and hiring based on the mould of previously successful candidates in role, or based on the likability factor.” Vodafone uses structured interviews, coupled with psychometrics and AI-matching technology Headstart, to ensure that hiring decisions are primarily fact-based.

Another way to reduce human bias is recruitment panels and keeping HR involved throughout the process. As Louise Ashley, a lecturer at the University of London specialising in diversity and inclusion, says: “most large organisations have good processes in place that try to prevent people hiring in their own image. The trouble is, sometimes individuals can override these processes. When a line manager actually gets into a room with a candidate they instinctively think ‘is this someone I can get along with, and work with, on an everyday basis?’ At that point bias can creep in, which is why it’s so powerful to ensure HR stays involved as that moderating, reminding voice.”

Being honest about the day-to-day experience is another way to weed out people who won’t thrive, says Harmer. “I tell them what others say, after three months here, about what surprises them, what they love and what they find hard. I am clear that our culture is about player managers, so I tell them if they are looking to just sit on the sidelines and shout instructions they’ll not do well.”

So it’s important to be mindful of cultural fit. But it’s even more important not to be hamstrung by it. The trick is to define your culture tightly, but loosen your grip when it comes to how this can be personified. The more flexible and open-minded you can be in your interpretation, and the more you challenge your own bias of how you think these values look in human form, the better. If you are too rigid you not only risk creating a homogenous culture, but you will also miss the misfits; people who may not easily ‘fit’ into your culture but who may, by being different, be exactly what your company needs.

“Think about Einstein,” says professor of leadership at Cranfield School of Management Elisabeth Kelan. “He was very well-known to be a complete misfit but he was an extremely unusual thinker. When you look at people who do not necessarily fit in, ask ‘is there room?’. Obviously you can’t have a whole organisation that only has misfits, as you’ll lose social cohesion, but those different people often have a different perspective that could bring the next evolution in your business. It’s really important to widen the template so ‘fitting in’ is not constraining, so you’re building a culture where being different is allowed.”

This acknowledgement of the power of difference within an overarching culture is growing in momentum, with some commentators even advocating that the term ‘cultural fit’ be ditched completely and others, like Headstart’s co-founder Nicholas Shekerdemian, arguing that the future is about ‘microcultures’ not monocultures.

“Companies often have criteria for culture held in a rigid structure. They say ‘we have one set of cultural values and they are the definition of what good looks like’. But cultures are made up of hundreds of smaller cultures, which make the overarching culture,” he explains. “You need to understand both. You need to understand microcultural fit. You need to recognise the intricacies within different parts of the company and hire people who are complementary to each other, rather than trying to hire the same person across functions and teams.”

This may sound like an overwhelming task, but with emerging technologies like AI it’s not. Shekerdemian for example, says that it takes less than two weeks to identify a company’s microcultures, based on a raft of variables like social background and interests.

The over-riding message to HRDs is to adopt a flexible, growth mindset when considering cultural fit, not an unforgiving, perfectionistic one. Boot concludes that in practice cultures are “messy, contradictory, paradoxical, complex, ambiguous and subject to change” so it helps to think of them “more like a river that erodes the landscape into different channels than a bucket of water”.

“Individuals enter, leave the organisation, or go through their individual stages of life and adapt their behaviours and motivations in response to both what is happening inside and outside the organisation and their lives,” she says. “This makes the whole notion of ‘fitting in’ problematic, as it implies fitting into something that is fixed and perfect.”

A better way, suggests Kelan, would be to consider an individual’s “contribution” – rather than how they fit in – to culture. After all, she says: “Culture is not meant to stifle; it’s meant to allow people to unfold their potential and that’s what HR can have a huge impact on.”