Should You Hire for Culture Fit?

August 20, 2019

Should You Hire for Culture Fit?

“Can you help us hire for culture fit?” is a question I receive on a weekly basis. The real question companies should be asking is “Should we hire for culture fit and if so, how?” Many organizations believe that the ability of new hires to “fit” within the company culture directly impacts their job performance, job satisfaction, and retention. But is culture fit—and the culture fit assessment—the high-impact predictor of job success that it’s often assumed to be? 

What Is Culture?
Before discussing culture fit assessments, we first need to understand both what culture is and how culture fit can be used in job recruitment. Culture is probably one of the most commonly misused terms in the talent market. 

Organizational culture is defined as the underlying beliefs, assumptions, values, and ways of interacting that contribute to the unique social and psychological environment of an organization. Simply stated, organizational culture is the way a company believes things get done.

As you can tell from the definition, organizational culture is an organizational-level concept as opposed to an individual-level term. Knowledge, skills, abilities, competencies, personality, and traits are all examples of individual-level concepts and can be measured at the individual level. Let’s explore culture and why it is an organizational-level concept, thus it is hard to measure at the individual level. 

Researchers have explained organizational culture in many ways, but I have found the easiest way to think about it is with facets. Based on a detailed review of the literature, past consulting work, and interviews with hundreds of various organizational leaders, I came up with 38 facets that can be used to describe culture, some examples of which are innovation, risk taking, fair policies, hierarchical, and diversity. 

Additionally, research has advanced the idea that organizations often have very differing cultures as well as subcultures. Thus, there may be subcultures that co-exist or conflict because each subculture is linked to a different management team or function. Think about it this way: What are the defining attributes of your company culture? How do you quantify those? 

In our research, we found cultural fit could add some predictive power to turnover or tenure. These findings fit with other research that find true organization culture fit is linked to job satisfaction and indirectly linked to tenure, but typically does not have a large impact on subsequent job performance. You need the individual-level areas of measurement (e.g., competencies) to predict job performance. 

The Downsides of Culture Fit 
Culture fit is hard to measure as it is an organizational-level concept that usually reflects the values of a company or manager. It isn’t the competency level of an employee or applicant, it is close but still more than the values of the organization, and includes the work environment employees must exist within. Finally, employees that fit the culture or values of a company are usually more satisfied and stay longer with the company, but it doesn’t mean they will be the top performing employees (in fact, it is very likely the exact opposite may occur). 

At this point you should be asking yourself “Why are so many companies wanting to assess for culture fit among their applicants?” The reason is most companies inappropriately associate culture fit with competencies. Or, believe the cultural values or facets can be accurately measured at the individual level across the entire applicant pool or enterprise. 

Additionally, culture fit has been a mask for manager fit—meaning managers get to select the applicant that fits h/her belief versus the competencies that will facilitate a quality hiring decision. The lack of specificity around what culture fit means allows the perfect opportunity for bias to enter the hiring process, and the perfect excuse when bias influences a hiring decision. Rather than aligning a candidate’s values with those of the organization, culture fit becomes a cover for managers to hire people like themselves, and exclude those they wouldn’t want to “get a beer with.” When improper culture fit plays a large role in hiring decisions, workplace diversity—both demographic diversity and diversity of thought—can be negatively impacted. 

Predictive Measure or Self-Fulfilling Prophecy? 
Culture fit-based hiring also fails to produce quality hires at an individual level. This may not be immediately obvious, because culture fit gives the illusion of increasing performance

On close inspection, culture fit is more self-fulfilling than predictive. The same bias which drives culture fit—similarity bias—contributes to biased performance reviews where the employees who fit the “best” are rewarded. And, like magic, culture fit appears to drive increased performance. 
 
In a related way, employees who fit are also likely to stick around longer. Since their values and beliefs (not their competence to perform the job) are so similar to the existing employee base, the workplace becomes like a social club. Unfortunately, while this environment is suitable for retaining complacent employees, it inhibits the organization’s ability to generate different, creative, and disruptive ideas. 

Culture fit-based hiring misses the forest for the trees. While measures at the individual level might appear to improve this, in many situations the organization suffers. 

What Does Science Say About Culture Fit? 
Even the best designed measures of culture fit have trouble greatly impacting job performance, and at best have a slight impact on retention. Nevertheless, organizations still insist on these measures because you can evaluate ALL applicants with the same test or assessment and you don’t need separate assessments for separate job families. Additionally the culture fit test is much simpler and quicker than deploying a panel of interviewers to screen the finalists for all jobs. 

Let’s compare how various assessment methods or pre-hire assessments perform when predicting job success. Generally high-quality pre-hire assessments provide an objective, predictive look at candidates in what is frequently a highly subjective process. Unfortunately, culture fit assessments do not stack up well against other pre-hire evaluation methods when it comes to predicting success on the job. 
 

Screening Method Validity Coefficient (0.0 - 1.0) 
Cognitive Ability Assessment 0.65
Structured Interview 0.58
Conscientiousness Assessment 0.46
Integrity Assessment 0.46
Work Sample Assessment 0.33
Situational Judgment Assessment 0.26
Culture Fit Assessment   0.13
Candidate Extraversion 0.09
Graphology (analysis of handwriting) 0.00

 

These validity coefficients (from Frank Schmidt's recent meta analysis) illustrate how well the screening method gives insight into a candidate’s future job success. The closer an assessment is to a validity coefficient of 1.0, the better. For reference, any assessment with a validity coefficient above 0.35 is considered very useful.

Culture fit assessments show very low validity, or relevance to job performance, particularly in comparison to screening methods like structured interviews and cognitive ability assessments.

From a scientific standpoint, culture fit assessments are among the worst possible predictors of job success. 
 
Is Culture Fit Worth the Risks? 
Culture fit is a tempting evaluation measure because every organization believes they have a unique culture and that successful employees would fit it better.  Unfortunately, the risks significantly outweigh the benefits. 

At its worst, assessing for culture fit excludes diversity of thought, diversity of experience, and underrepresented groups, and provides an easy cover for bias. At its best, when culture fit is codified in a pre-hire assessment, those assessments show very low relevance to on-the-job success, and are the least predictive of any mainstream assessment type. 

If culture remains a consideration in the hiring process, evaluators should look at what candidates add to the culture, rather than if they fit.

The Authors: 

Nathan Mondragon, Ph.D., is Chief IO Psychologist at HireVue.