Take This Cult and Shove It - Why Culture Fit Shouldn't Be a Thing

Am I the only one who has finally reached the end of the proverbial rope regarding the much chucked around term “culture fit?” I find myself in a whirlwind of fed-up-ness. Odd that this irritation manifested in almost an instant. The concept of culture fit, in some form or fashion, has been a thing for a decade or so. But, today I filled up, tipped over, and am sick of hearing about the secrets to culture fit, as though it’s a last hurdle candidates must leap over to be validated.

Here’s where my exasperation starts. First, I don’t believe anyone knows what culture fit means. It’s like climate change. It sounds terribly important, everyone has an opinion, and no one really knows what it is. But, they would fight you in a cage match to defend that opinion.

A reasonable definition of culture fit, by those insistent on defining it, is produced with a simple Google search.

Cultural fit is the likelihood that a job candidate will be able to conform and adapt to the core values and collective behaviors that make up an organization.

OK, let’s start there. I’m going to presuppose that there really can be a set of identifiable core values and collective behaviors across an organization of, let’s say, 1000 people. No, I’m not! Calling BS on that. If you have an organization of 1000 people who have the same core values and collective behaviors, you have yourself a cult, not a company. Oh wait, now we may be getting somewhere. Are we rallying around corporate culture or the corporate cult? Did you know that in some parts of the modern world, employees are strongly encouraged to learn a company song and hum it while they work in order to encourage others? I haven’t yet seen that one firsthand, but what I have seen is equally disturbing. I can also say I’ve seen organizations of zombies where this concept couldn’t hurt – anything to wake the dead.

I'm Not Worthy

There are companies right here in Denver CO – ones born of a small, like-minded group of engineers, marketers, or advertisers (or a combination thereof), but have grown into respectable brands – some approaching multiple hundreds of employees – who believe that in order to be successful in their company, one must subscribe to the same political views, religious beliefs, views on volunteerism, be green-minded (in the political sense), have affinity for the outdoors, participate in community affairs, and the litmus tests go on. This actually happens! They call it culture fit. They vet candidates on it, albeit sometimes cleverly to skirt HR regs, and it weighs very heavily on hire outcome – usually in a binary fashion – in or out. Sorry folks. That’s not screen for culture fit. That’s a straight-up cult worthiness examination.

One + One = Not One

I understand that companies typically start with a small group of like-minded folks who may think about a product, service or process similarly; come from comparable backgrounds and maybe have well-aligned core values. But, at some point a successful company usually grows, right? I don’t know where that critical mass begins – is it 10, 50, 100, 250? A company may start small and like-minded, but after you’ve added a bunch of new heads, you have little hope of maintaining whatever that original culture once was. You’re kidding yourself otherwise – or am I just being absurd? If your mission is to hire only employees who will conform and adapt to those original core values and behaviors, you are building a cult, and you need to stop now! You can surely cultivate (there’s that cult word again) or curate a broad set of values that are important, but if you’re not allowing new room for growth in this area, you’re scaring me.

Already, I feel certain the industrial sociologists and psychologists, not to mention a couple of old HR executives I know and love, are ready to slice and dice me. Trust me, I’m just getting started. Hold your fire.

WWDD (What Would Drucker Do)

Peter Drucker said “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” This I understand. I think I get where Drucker was coming from. He speaks in the context of organizational culture – that is, the meshing of individual and collective behavior, shared values and beliefs, and the influence they have in an organization, over time. He was not talking about building a corporate culture as a Lego project. That simply can’t be done, although the manufacturers of Dynamo Foosball tables are glad many people still think it can. Drucker’s talking about the evolution of a corporate culture – the sum of what a culture is, based on addition over a period of time. It’s the over a period of time part that is key in my opinion.

Corporate cultures evolve, as they should. With every new hire, a company should embrace the possibility that some bright individual might breathe fresh, additive life into the culture – new ideas, new influence, new motivation. Shouldn’t all companies be open to this, or should companies who feel they’ve landed on some cultish phenomenon that has allowed them to wildly exceed their plan be unwilling to take on anyone who can’t adapt and conform to the uniform code? No really… I’m asking. This is but one issue I have with companies longing to identify only candidates who fit into what they believe is a perfectly-modeled culture – gross, for lack of a better word!

You Don't Know It When You See It

Here’s my next worry, and it’s a whopper. I’ve never seen a company that knows how to measure if someone is a cultural fit – or if they claim to know how, be able to explain it. I’ve talked with people up and down the food chain and yet, nothing of substance – just the sound of crickets. The conversation always spirals into a frustrated contortion along the lines of, “well, we know it when we see it!” Granted, I’ve worked with a few big brands who actually employ functionally-agnostic cultural specialists, ambassadors, or something similar, as part of the interview team with the single mission of producing an authentic cultural assessment of a candidate – special training and certification in hand. They ask cutting-edge questions like, “one of our guiding principles is that we have fun at work – how do you have fun at work?” or “describe the culture in which you are most productive” or “what management style brings out your best effort?” Enlightening, I know. But wait! That’s not what causes me grave concern. Any of these questions may be reasonable to ask in the course of an interview, although not very useful in determining someone’s ability to do a job. What really keeps me up is that no one can tell me how answers to these questions are measured in determining whether a candidate is a “cultural fit.” There you have it. As I’ve written so many times in the past, I’ve seen no evidence that interview teams are taking anything away from the interview table other than gut feel, thumbs up or down, and little or no correlative dimension regarding a candidate’s ability to actually DO THE FRICKING WORK that needs to be done. Decisions are usually rendered before the interview even comes to an end. Why? Because we’re human – because that’s the way our primitive brain works, because we all have ulterior motives, good or bad, and because egos are involved. And somehow, companies continue to exist and even sometimes grow up to be successful. Go figure.

We All Need Something To Do

Here’s the third and final rant on cultural fitness. I believe it’s something HR invented to have a voice in the interview and hiring process. There, I said it. Now the HR folks are pissed off for sure. I’ve been hanging out with some very successful companies for a lot of years now. I don’t recall cultural assessment ever being a contraption that was bolted on to interviews in the early days. In fact, interviewing with a few tech companies (as a technologist) came down to functional fitness and reliable proof that I was capable of doing the work that needed to be done. If we got along, we got along. I wouldn’t even count that in the plus column necessarily. We also hired people who weren’t like us, and I mean in some cases were nothing like us. But, they could do the work, we learned from them, they learned from us, and in many cases they made the culture different and better. We were a collage of beliefs, backgrounds, and behaviors, and in many ways a band of misfits. A couple of those companies have grown up to live in the upper ranks of the Fortune lists. A few were successfully acquired. The point is, we didn’t know that we were supposed to care about cultural fit. We just needed people to do the work, who could walk the walk, and who were motivated to produce something. Where did it all get so complicated?

This is not coming from an old guy longing for simpler times. I’ve been building teams for 25 years and I dedicated myself to the talent acquisition profession over a decade ago. I do find genius in simplicity and I still believe that a phone is the best recruiting tool, as long as there is a real recruiter on one end of the line. I don’t believe there will ever be a technology, platform or social strategy that replaces the personal nature of recruitment. In fact, I still haven’t seen one of those things close a candidate.

I really do believe that we’ve jumped the shark on this thing we've come to call culture fit. Personality assessment is reasonably important to a degree, but easily faked. There are masterful interviewers who walk among us and who hoodwink unsuspecting recruiters and hiring managers every day. Shouldn’t we be focused, first and mostly, on a process that can really identify candidates who are properly motivated and who can perform – that is, do the work that needs to be done? And, if we just incorporate that, with rigorous concentration, into all of our recruitment efforts, wouldn’t the culture fit thing, so often ill-defined and abused, just take care of itself?

Skip Graham

Views: 1377

Comment by Eric Putkonen on September 10, 2015 at 11:58am

I chuckle when I see "we value diversity" and "we require cultural fit".  It seems they look at diversity as skin color alone, because a diversity of ideas and values is not valued at all (I.e. outside of this band of values and ideas, you are not wanted). 

I am a fan of Japanese anime (some cool ideas) and there is a quote from Ghost in the Shell that goes "If we all reacted the same way, we'd be predictable, and there's always more than one way to view a situation. What's true for the group is also true for the individual. It's simple: Overspecialize, and you breed in weakness. It's slow death."

I see the value of cultural fit to only a point...but I do also like diversity of ideas and values.

Comment by Katrina Kibben on September 10, 2015 at 1:58pm

"I’ve never seen a company that knows how to measure if someone is a cultural fit – or if they claim to know how, be able to explain it. I’ve talked with people up and down the food chain and yet, nothing of substance – just the sound of crickets." <-- Exactly. 

Comment by Skip Graham on September 11, 2015 at 10:37am

Eric, to my point. Culture, by it's nature, is additive. It's not a finite box built in which ideas, values and personalities fit. It should be ever expanding and evolving. The sum or product of what a culture is or isn't only applies at a moment in time. Just my opinion. Thanks for the reply.

You too Katrina!


Comment by Nicole Antonio-Gadsdon on September 14, 2015 at 5:10pm

Woah! Great exposé on the difference between guiding values (positive) and cult-ral fit. The latter being a (sometimes) barely disguised code for make sure you hire 'people like us' with an unpleasant whiff of the downsides of cloning. It's all about control. Diversity (not minority monitoring  or quotas) is a driver for positive organisation performance and the ability to not only survive but thrive in our constantly changing business environment. Instead of cultural fit, we should be focusing on hiring and motivating individuals with independent thoughts, divergent thinking, cross-cultural collaboration etc. Wild, scary stuff for some I am sure :-) Here's to unplugging from the Matrix!


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