Culture is a key factor in attracting and retaining top talent. Companies that have positive cultures and emphasize cultural fit in hiring also tend to attract more favorable publicity. REI, which broke the unwritten code of retailers by closing its doors on Black Friday, generated an overwhelmingly positive public response as a result of its bold move.
Compare that to the open letters from disgruntled Yelp employees that have gone viral recently. Whether or not these employee complaints were justified, they illustrate a hard truth: In the age of social media, sometimes all it takes is a strongly worded letter to raise questions about a company’s reputation (or at least its public perception).
However, it is possible for companies to focus too much on cultural fit to their detriment.
Here are three instances when a company’s desire for cultural fit can be taken too far.
1. When Cultural Fit Is a Shield For Discrimination
We’re hard-wired to be attracted to people who are more like us. A study by the Kellogg School of Management found job offers were strongly influenced by the interviewer’s perception of cultural fit. In this particular instance, the applicants’ socioeconomic backgrounds played a significant role in the hiring decisions of elite professional services firms.
While larger corporations tend to have more formal hiring practices to guard against discrimination, biases can creep in anywhere. A tech startup that simply defines itself as “fresh, innovative and disruptive” may inadvertently become biased against older employees who may have just as many skills and new ideas to offer.
Hiring managers can avoid this pitfall by more clearly defining their culture and translating it into specific, measurable behaviors.
2. When It Becomes More Important Than Competence
We’ve all encountered people who interview well and have the ability to establish rapport with just about anyone. (Think about your sales reps; much of their success hinges on their ability to sell themselves and your company to others without making it feel like a transaction.)
That’s why it’s important to remember that while charm and a strong connection can go a long way, it’s not enough to replace competence.
Using objective, data-driven assessments can help hiring managers focus on the most important job criteria and avoid making snap judgment.
3. When It Stifles Innovation
Cynthia Barton Rabe, author of The Innovation Killer, says “group think” is one of the two biggest barriers that stifle innovation within an organization.
While it’s important for teams to have a shared set of values and a collective mission, there are dangers in putting too much emphasis on conformity.
In such an environment, employees can be hesitant to speak up if they believe another approach or course of action will be more effective than what the consensus believes.
Instead, aim for a diverse blend of people who bring different perspectives, personalities and strengths to the table with the desire to use them for the greater good of the company.
Hiring for cultural fit is as much a science as it is an art form. While you may have a gut feeling about a certain candidate, keep your instincts in check by using objective, data-based processes and doing your due diligence.
For more than a decade, we've helped some of the world's most successful companies improve their culture through executive assessments, leadership development and more.