Remember lunch in middle or high school? For most of us, it was our first time experiencing the desperate desire to get a “seat at the table”. But in this case, it was that cafeteria table with the group we wanted to associate with. Maybe it was that coveted clique or group of friends, or the group associated with a sport or extracurricular activity, or perhaps it was just being able to sit at a table that wasn’t empty.
Do you remember what it was like trying to earn that seat? Did you have to change yourself or mimic others to fit in? Were you worried you would be discovered or called out for being different? The worst part – spending all that time and einergy trying to fit in kept us from being our best, discovering ouor own strengths and passions and cultivating true friendships, partnerships, and other relationships.
Thankfully, we have come a long way since those days coveting a seat at the lunch table in high school… haven’t we?
‘Culture Fit’ – the grown-up version of the cafeteria table
“They have all the right skills, but I just don’t think they will fit in here.”
“I don’t think they are a good fit.”
“That candidate is… not really right for this job.”
Hold on, why not? Why aren’t they a good fit if they have all the right abilities and experiences?
“I feel like they aren’t right for our culture.”
When done correctly, evaluating a candidate’s ‘culture fit’ is incredibly valuable. It shows if the individual will thrive in an organization and team – aligned, motivated, driven to success alongside their peers. Unfortunately, for many companies it is little more than earning the coveted seat at the cafeteria table. And let’s be honest – a team made from a single middle or high school table is likely a very bad idea.
So, what is the wrong and right way to measure ‘culture fit’?
Culture fit is NOT:
A mirror: Candidates that are similar to you and your team feel comfortable and give the impression of lower risk. “I am fantastic, and you are like me, so you must be fantastic.” Similar backgrounds, interests, demographics, education, approaches, mentality, speech patterns, etc. can all trigger this mirror effect. The problem is, you already have someone that thinks and acts like you – you. What you need is someone to see things differently, come to different conclusions, take different approaches. You don’t want the thing that stumps you, to stump everyone.
No: “Are you like me?”
Yes: “Will you complement the org/team’s strengths and weaknesses and add to our experiences and abilities?”
A friend: Candidates with that the perfect personality that you click with when you talk with them can feel like a great “fit”. Such compatibility is fantastic… for a friend or other relationship, but not for an employee. The goal of work is to get the job done and succeed in the mission, not having a best bud to sit with.
No: “Do I like you?”
Yes: “Will we achieve great things working together?”
Perfect fit for the wrong culture: Candidates could be a great fit for the culture, except for one small problem – it is not actually yours. When measuring culture fit, use the real culture, not the ideal version or what has been branded as “culture (you know, that flawless picture for the outside world). Not sure if your culture is “real”, here’s a trick – when describing the culture of your organization, do you believe it? The exception, if the organization is purposefully taking steps to change a culture, it is beneficial to find people to match your future culture, as it will help you achieve it. However, culture change must be more than just talk. Look for evidence that this change is happening such as actionable steps, accountability, progress measurements, to name a few. If none of that is happening, it’s probably best to stick with the culture you have, at least for now.
No: “Do you fit the culture we say we have?”
Yes: “Do you fit the culture we actually have?”
A participant in the extracurriculars: Candidates that party like the rest of us feel like they are going to fit in great. However, culture statements that just list a bunch of non-work-related bonding activities (happy hours and holiday parties), are not a corporate culture. These activities are not necessary for being a successful contributing member of the team (unless the job is to attend happy hours and put on parties). Even more, specific non-work events could be alienating to great talent – consider single parents who can’t stay after hours or non-drinkers who don’t enjoy bars. The events don’t make the culture, it’s the people; focus on that.
No: “Do you enjoy / take part in the extra-curricular activities?”
Yes: “Can you participate in work-critical activities?”
Culture fit IS:
Culture fit is not about BEING like everyone else, it’s about ALIGNING with the organization’s purpose so that they add their unique skills, abilities, knowledge, approach, and style to the whole. It all starts with ‘knowing thy self’ – what drives your organization/team: mission, values, and productive habits. Then measure candidate’s against alignment to those attributes.
Driven by mission: One thing everyone in your organization has in common is that they all work there. Why? What is driving everyone – that thing that the company is chasing? (Hint, if the answer is “making money”, dig deeper.) For example, is it to “get a piece of every business”? Is it to “make information accessible for everyone at any time”? Is it “to remove bias from the hiring process so organizations can have equitable hiring programs”? Whatever the reason (and be honest) – a good culture fit is someone who believes in that mission and is excited to be a part of achieving it.
What is our mission? / Why do we exist?
“Why do you want to work for this organization?”
“Why are you aligned to our mission?”
“How will you help us achieve our mission?”
Alignment with values: In addition to the mission, organizations are cohesive around values. These are the beliefs that govern their behaviors and decisions. Not to be confused with what an organization claims or advertises, real values will be backed by real and consistent evidence. Candidates that encompass, prioritize, and otherwise appreciate these values can be a good culture fit.
Before declaring something a value, identify the evidence to validate it’s real. For example, an organization that values ‘healthy family life’ will have flexible work options, show a history of accommodating employees when they have emergency family needs (kids sick, family member dies), respects disconnect time during nights and weekends, and encourage vacations. If a company says they value family or work-life balance, but meanwhile everyone is pressured to put in 80-hour work weeks, never take vacation, and have little sympathy for the needs of a sick child – it is NOT a value.
What are our REAL values?
What are examples of the organization demonstrating/living the values?
What happens when someone does not uphold our values?
“What are the most important values for you?”
“What would you do if [situation where value will effect decision – such as weighing a decision with integrity vs. make the sale]?”
“What organization values did you most appreciate in your past experiences, and why?”
Alignment with team / organization experience: What are the daily / routine activities and habits that define the experience and drive success. These are not the parties and happy hours, these are those things that keep the team / organization productive. For example, does the team eat lunch together and discuss challenges? Does the team have a daily meeting at 7:00 am to align priorities for the day? Is there a monthly knowledge-share session where one member of the team presents something new to the organization?
For these activities, a good culture fit will either participate effectively
OR can be (and open to be) trained to participate effectively
OR the activity can be adjusted to accommodate the new member.
For example, if they are not available at 7:00 am for a meeting, can it be at 7:30 or can they join remotely?
What defining ‘habits/activities’ that drive success?
Why is it driving success (can it be done in other ways)?
Are these habits practical to continue as we grow?