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Culture Fit in the Workplace: What It Is and Why It's Important

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  1. Joey says:

    I recently failed an interview with culture fit repeated multiple times among the reasons. I was very happy to get some feedback so it was interesting to measure against why in my own self doubt I might have failed. Despite my own self doubt I tend to pass them so it’s the failures that really make me think. It was particularly good in allowing me to read between the lines. Other reasons were given which were fair given the limited time of interviews provide and my poor utilisation of that time although they edged a bit more towards reinforcing the decision than being the primary reason.

    I would normally brush it aside. No is no and so you move on to the next thing but the term “culture fit” really stood out though as something I was unfamiliar with and wanted to understand. If I fail an interview it means that I need to improve upon something and this is not a something I am familiar with. Saying that I also found the term odd not only because I felt I did badly in the interview especially on account of doing it when sleep deprived plus permitting a strange mood take a hold of me so there was reason enough to fail it alone giving more precise terms but also because in the society I live in culture would not be considered something you can’t discriminate against in the workplace. Perhaps not in the legal sense other than in a borderline sense for the sheer majority of cases but in a society where multiculturalism is held up as one of our highest ideals it’s an odd thing for it to be normalised to say that a candidate is inappropriate in a way that could potentially say indirectly on account of having the wrong culture or cultural background would be considered inappropriate. In the society I live in there’s the notion that all cultures are to be accepted. Before that the popular term used to be team fit. I do wonder what other terms there are out there.

    I assume it’s meant to be uncontroversial but it kind of is. I wouldn’t take complaint at it but I did find it somewhat surprising, intriguing and amusing. It made me laugh so I sought to find out more about it. It is normal when participating in hiring to have HR hammer into someone terms that can’t be used in job descriptions or similar that might be discriminatory even when you haven’t done anything like that. Politicians also hammer into us that we’re a multicultural society and must accept that. It’s a really big thing here. I’m not the type to jump on the that is discrimination if it might be discrimination band wagon but on the other hand seeing a lapse in defensiveness against that when nearly all of society is incredibly defensive about it made it stand out.

    The fit terms tend to cover the things that aren’t easily described or explained. Often fuzzy measurements. It could be because they are nefarious or because sometimes it’s simply not easy to explain things. In my case I’m a bit surprised by it being put that way but I don’t believe anything untoward happened. It is the first time I’ve heard the term so I’ve taken a look into it. There is such a thing as culture fit as this article demonstrates and there are arguments for or against but I still stand by my analysis of the term that it’s likely to be instead largely used as a way to brush aside things that are hard to explain. I don’t think you can avoid fit terms altogether but I do think that trying to be more specific with them would help.

    When confronted with something as vague as cultural fit if someone is the anxious analytical type the question what does that even mean will rattle around in the head for a while. In my case it would have been more specific to say a personality misfit as reading between the lines it was obvious that it was getting at that. I think the term culture fit is chosen out of habit as a kind of cure all. I blew that interview particularly in that respect because as the time elapsed I never got around to asking about the role which meant shooting myself in the foot in terms of then having the opportunity to express how I would fit into that role. Another valid reason given could have been role fit. When I give interviews I normally bring up the role myself and explain it so it was a rookie mistake on my part to have let feeling being rushed get the better of me. When significantly rushed I can cut corners or miss things and it’s one of my character faults. I have a lot of intense experiences being put under tight time pressure and it was also running late cutting into other duties I had to attend to. There’s a responsibility for discussing role is on both sides, either party should bring it up if left blank but ultimately it’s more on the candidate who is selling themselves to cover that.

    If you put yourself in the position of a decision maker something in their mind about it doesn’t fit but it’s not always easy to express exactly what. If it doesn’t fit and it doesn’t not fit then it doesn’t fit. The first thing that comes to mind is whatever common type of misfit they’ve seen before and that is a “thing” so to speak. If you want to be a good fit you need to actually talk about how you will fit in and if you don’t, expect the bad fit criteria. While the interviewer might try they are not you and while they can describe a role they don’t know you as well as you do and in most cases only you can apply yourself to the role they describe to the maximum extent.

    Because of the squeeze I was pretty open but brief so in being open displayed some cases of bad attitudes without properly explaining them by giving the context. By all rights that could have been said but keeping it obscure makes things less complicated. Bad attitude would be an insult to some but in my case on a few points where I incriminated myself without justifying myself it would have been valid. As I will explain later, that would be an example of how terms like culture fit are used to obscure and as a catch all or cure all.

    I also do interviews, hiring, etc so I have a bit of insight and can put myself in the other shoes. Personally I would try hard to resort to whatever measures I have at hand before falling back to a fit option but it can happen. Luckily in my field the skill set and contributing attributes are so broad or diversified that there’s rarely two candidates that weigh up the same. It’s not as simple for example as seeing who can stack up the most bricks in ten minutes and having two candidates achieve the same with the situation that you have to toss a coin.

    On a side note, there are different approaches to taking interviews but the main being once a candidate appears to have passed to then try to fail them and see if they prevail. You can interview to pass or to fail a candidate. Personally if I have a lot of weak candidates only I test them to pass whereas if I have a lot of strong candidates I test them to fail. In some scenarios both can be done. That is, I have found in an interview process some are set up such that ultimately the decision maker has enough so that they can take either decision and to be able to give a reason for it. Once someone demonstrates that they can do the work you can’t assume that’s the end of it. At that point a decision maker can potentially decide on whatever basis they choose. Hiring processes should try to avoid the problems that come with raising both bars when the criteria is particularly vague and uncertain. I tend to personally be wary of myself falling into that trap at which point it’s entirely subjective and you’re at the mercy of someone’s gut feelings or whatever suits their fancy. At that point it can get quite vague.

    When I’m interviewing it quickly becomes apparent that there’s more to it than can this person do the job. I instantly find myself thinking about retention as well as the moral position such as is this person going to be happy with the job and role for example. It’s almost like getting married, it’s a big commitment and a massive life decision sometimes for both sides of the equation. For someone hiring, it’s often a huge responsibility. I naturally think like this and yet I don’t always get it right. It’s a difficult challenge. Most people will also be very avoidant when it comes to hiring someone they might have to fire. Not only because it reflects badly on the person hiring but because people tend to have compassion and don’t want risk having to do that kind of thing to someone. Even if whatever happens on account of someone’s decision doesn’t impact them much there are still a lot of people out there that consider everything else anyway.

    Everyone applying really wants a job as well and you have to battle through short term desire to establish the long term reality. When it comes to issues like that I might question the candidate to find out and confirm or deny my suspicions, I might discuss it with the HR department but I have to be honest, when it comes to the candidate it tends not to be the kind of thing you want to discuss in detail. A decision is final and you don’t want to drag it on getting caught up in the details.

    I think cultural fit as described in the article is important but there’s nothing worse than someone who can’t do the job and can’t do it well so that must always come first and foremost. I measure what you call cultural fit inversely, as impedance or friction. An obvious example I see is that for example if the initial person on a project is German and more fluent in the language then you see the team stacked more with German speakers because of the reduced impedance in communication. It’s easy to see this when you try to communicate to them fluently as you would another native English speaker. The process is slower and less accurate. That’s an obvious example but there are more subtle elements to it. While it is inadvertently discriminatory I can’t disagree with the advantages either. When you see people cooperating more easily that’s what you’re seeing. It raises some interesting moral questions in places but ultimately sometimes you need maximum productivity. It can make the difference between a successful business and having to make a lot of people redundant.

    The test you cite is on a small scale. In reality I’ve seen things on a much larger scale than that test alone in my work experience. The results are much more variable and dependent on external factors. There’s an inherent and obvious risk of such a philosophy leading to cronyism or something comparable. It can also inadvertently end up as discriminatory. Some descriptions talk about hiring someone you can have a drink with. I sometimes hire Muslims that don’t drink so you can see the obvious problem with that. I can get along with them like a house on fire but not when it comes to the tradition of drinks after work. You need to be very careful to make sure you concentrate firstly on where you fit rather than where you don’t fit. For the latter you need to very carefully consider it.

    In my case I expect the person read the same research you have and between the lines it essentially said that I was introverted. It was a bit confusing because I was very expressive and like an open book. I think I inhibited myself from saying something potentially damning in only two instances. It made me wonder if part of me might even be invisible to myself. I was however both confident and at the same time extremely nervous. I also had the confidence to say that I wasn’t confident with something which presents a minor paradox. People who are easily afflicted of such ambivalence can be very hard to read or judge accurately. I believe that it really came down to that I felt rushed and therefore skipped some things which made me appear evasive, avoidant or inhibitive.

    A short timed test before the interview made me feel additionally rushed despite the fact that I finished it in less than half the time allotted. I actually finished it twice as well when it only needed to be finished once. This told me a lot about myself. I am very sensitive to performing well in tests even though I was told it’s not a test but a conversation starter and that I’m very sensitive to being given short time limits. I never used the extra time left to proof read it and present it better though where as in most normal circumstances I spend a lot of time on improving things but in this case it stressed me so I tried to take the time to relax instead. I have no idea if this was intentional or not, but if that effect was not intentional you can see how anything can interfere to influence judgement of someone’s overall personality.

    While I can measure myself internally after the fact to then correct myself later the interviewer can’t. I do agree with the problems with that which are pointed out here. I tend to have a strategy with candidates to try to get around the interference that an interview scenario introduces and I’ve noticed the same with all other interviewers. It’s a natural problem. At any point in time you don’t want to give the candidate the impression they have passed or failed. You have to expect candidates to potentially be compromised by the time limit, novelty and nervousness. We always tend to assume the worst such as that a candidate will see any up as a pass or any down as a fail. Unless something is really critical it should be about the overall.

    You often only have to look at yourself to see the problem. I have both extremely strong introverted and extroverted tenancies. Like a lot of people I tend to have some introverted tendencies in entirely new situations but extroverted once I become familiar with things and am not overwhelmed with everything being new. Interviews tend to be a very bad measure of how extroverted someone really is because of contributing factors. A lot of people look for confidence but ultimately you’re better off with under confident than over confidence. It gets more confusing sometimes. I personally tend to be under confident but sometimes over ambitious with the two somewhat conflicting.

    There’s a natural inclination in all of this. A poor cultural fit can mean as you have mentioned that the person hiring doesn’t think they can get along with you or bond well and the chances are if you can’t get along with them, if that’s their hiring criteria especially, then you probably wont get along easily. That’s a risk. A work environment that favours cultural fit as this article describes can become dependent on it versus a work environment that doesn’t. It’s a feedback, self reinforcing. In all of this you’re also missing out on the green eggs and ham factor. People are the sum of a lot of things including their experiences. Some are more adaptable than others. You know someone who has been in an open plan office will likely fit in more easily but that doesn’t mean someone else who hasn’t when afforded the opportunity might not quickly adapt. In fact it might turn out that they like that layout more but merely never go to experience it.

    Back on to where it’s valid, for talented people who are capable, you can have two candidates that both achieve as much. However if the methods of one candidate are more in line with your own then that candidate will be preferred. It’s not always what you’ve achieved but how. It can be arbitrary but being in sync matters. While all roads lead to Rome, you need to be one the same road as someone else for them to be a companion.

    When used as a cure all it can mean all kinds of things, obvious or relevant ones being:

    * An interviewer perceives you as a threat to them in an area they are dominant in. A potential rival more than an ally. This is especially the case if your accomplishments are the same or worse, better, but your methods are different.
    * A liability or burden and remember in most cases anyone interviewing is responsible for their contribution towards the hiring decision.
    * Anything that might lead to confrontation or hostility.
    * Anything difficult to explain briefly.
    * The person hiring thinks they can get better. I have rejected on account of this myself. That is the pool of candidates even if suitable is weak compared to what should be available.
    * Something nefarious. I don’t think anyone should assume this to be the case by default. It’s important instead to first and foremost interrogate yourself to try to get at the hidden reasons behind a decision. People who automatically blame others suck. You can’t improve others so easily. You can always improve yourself however with the right motivation and self reflection.
    * It might be a gut feeling and even they might not really know the reason.

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