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Hiring for cultural fit: why managers find it so hard and get it wrong so often

Hiring for cultural fit: why managers find it so hard and get it wrong so often

I’m sure we can all think of a time we’ve worked with someone who wasn’t a good cultural fit. For hiring managers, you might even think of a specific person who you hired with high expectations only to discover that person was a square peg for a round hole in your organization.

I’ve heard of a case where only three weeks after starting, the new hire decided that the role and the company wasn’t what she wanted. She didn’t share the values, nor did she feel challenged in her role. Yet when she was hired, she had the perfect resume, interviewed well and what she said seemed to point to the fact that she wanted to work for the organization.

It’s a prime example of what happens when there is no cultural fit between the new hire and the organization. Hiring a mismatched candidate can cost an organization between 50-60% of the person’s annual salary.1

And that’s just the financial impact. When a new hire walks out, not only are short a staff member, the remaining people on your team may suffer from low morale, your projects might be derailed and you may lose confidence in your decision making. How can you be sure you won’t make the same mistake again?

Why is hiring for cultural fit so hard?

A common misconception about hiring is that you need to be great at “reading” people in interviews to judge cultural fit.

This isn’t helped by the large number of articles that circulate on platforms like LinkedIn from people with their own personal “expert” tips on how they identify top performers in interviews, such as the “sell me this pen” interview test made famous by The Wolf of Wall Street.

But I think a significant part of the problem is that hiring managers aren’t clear about the culture in which the candidate needs to fit.

Then there’s the unconscious bias that comes into play. It doesn’t take much for a manager to be won over by the wrong candidate. Maybe they seemed eager, which the manager interpreted as motivated to do the job. Or maybe the candidate just had a lot in common with the manager. (Research has found that hiring managers often fall into the trap of hiring those who could be their new best buddy.2)

So how do you overcome unconscious bias and identify candidates who will be a good cultural fit?

1. Define your culture

The Harvard Business Review describes cultural fit as. “The likelihood that someone will reflect and/or be able to adapt to the core beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors that make up your organization.”3

In all likelihood, different people in your organization will have different definitions of the organization’s culture. You may also find that your organizational culture and team culture are quite different.

There are lots of ways to develop a better definition of your culture – from as simple as exploring it in a team meeting, to surveys, assessments and talent analytics from data across the organization.

For example, one of Hudson’s clients had their employees take our behavioral assessment questionnaire. Results showed that everyone shared common traits like extroversion and collaboration. Thus when this company looks at hiring for cultural fit, these are the key behavioral traits they seek.

Another way to understand your organizational culture is looking at the way employees are recognized and rewarded. For example, in a performance-driven culture, those with a high drive to succeed will rise up the ranks more quickly.

2. Use behavioral and motivation-indicator questions

As organizations realize the value of hiring for cultural fit, questions geared to gauge a candidate’s tendencies and motivation are becoming increasingly common during interviews.

Most of these questions relate to asking a candidate what they would do in certain situations and explore what they like and why. An example is, “What has been your most preferred reward and recognition initiative across the places you’ve worked?”

While this doesn’t overcome unconscious bias completely, it provides an opportunity to delve more into your candidate’s motivations, behaviors and values, rather than their experience only.

3. Use psychological assessments

While these are good places to start, without the right tools and expertise, hiring managers will still be without objective data to determine whether a candidate will be a cultural match. Assessment tools are designed to tap into a candidate’s motivation, preferences and tendencies to compare to the organization’s culture. It’s not uncommon for hiring managers to say that they had a gut feeling that a candidate wasn’t suitable, and then the assessment shows why.

For example, it’s possible to have two candidates who are both sociable, but who manifest this in different ways. One candidate may like to chat with their colleagues every morning as they work while the other may prefer to work hard, then go out with their colleagues after their work is done. The different working preferences and motivation of the two candidates will likely have different impacts on the team and the organization.

Typically organizations have relied on psychological assessments at the end of the hiring process, but there is a missed opportunity in not using this information earlier.

Ideally, you should evaluate candidates for cultural fit throughout the process, from the phone screen, through to assessment, interviews and the reference check.

When you know your work culture and what you are looking for, hiring is no longer a guessing game. As the adage goes, knowledge is power. Or in this case, knowledge of cultural fit means more power to you and your team.

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