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Don’t Take Organizational Culture Fit for Granted—But Don’t Overthink It, Either

Toby Graham /
people eating with chopsticks out of orange packets

Culture, culture, culture. If that word has lost basically all meaning to you, congratulations: you’re a workforce management professional. 

In our line of work, we hear about culture every day, several (hundred) times a day. We know it’s the reason why employees feel comfortable—or not—within an organizational environment. We know it’s vital to a company’s success and longevity. We know it’s impossible to manufacture, and that every employee’s actions and inactions shape it in ways big and small.

That said, many of us would be hard-pressed to define exactly what culture means or measure it in a meaningful way. Instead, some HR leaders have substituted it with a simpler, more functional concept: fit. The idea is that a person and the organization they work for should clearly fit together.

This concept has sparked controversy in recent years, perhaps for how unscientific and biased it seems. As Patty McCord, former chief talent officer at Netflix, wrote last year in the Harvard Business Review:

“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 done. This misguided hiring strategy can also contribute to a company’s lack of diversity, since very often the people we enjoy hanging out with have backgrounds much like our own.”

In other words, a decision made solely for culture—or fit, or whatever term used to describe whether person and organization align—may exclude many qualified candidates. It’s not just about personality fit or another surface-level assessment, argues McCord, but capability fit. You want the right person for the job, regardless of whether that person immediately “feels” right. You can’t merely trust a gut feeling. A recent article, which also appears in HBR, challenges this perspective somewhat. Or maybe it doesn’t. Or maybe it adds a little nuance. In any case, it does give us a useful definition of “culture fit.” 

Business professors and HR technologists Joeri Hofmans and Timothy A. Judge explain fit as “how well one’s values adhere to the values of the organization or team.” With this definition in mind, they write, there’s no reason that hiring for culture fit should hurt diversity:

“The idea here is that hiring for culture fit undermines efforts to increase workplace diversity, because it leads to hiring managers essentially trying to clone their current workforce. Although, at first blush, this assertion seems to make sense, a simultaneous pursuit of culture fit and diversity is possible. An assessment of culture fit should focus on how well the person’s values align with the organization’s, rather than how well their personal characteristics, such as gender, ethnicity, age, and sexual orientation, align with the current workforce. Research shows that adopting this stricter definition of culture fit can reap its benefits while still bringing in diverse perspectives, experiences, and skills; it also finds that higher value fit is associated with higher retention for people who, because of being demographically different, are typically more at risk for low retention. Pursuing culture fit and diversity together can buffer some of the challenges that come with managing a more diverse workforce. When done right, hiring for culture fit might enrich rather than undermine diversity in your organization.”

Read “Hiring for Culture Fit Doesn’t Have to Undermine Diversity.”

Whatever words we use to talk about it, all HR professionals want the same thing: a vibrant workforce comprised of people who are good at what they do and enjoy doing it. Don’t make hiring and retention at your organization more complicated than they need to be—discover how KPA’s HR tools help you find, engage, and keep qualified talent.

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