How important is cultural fit in recruitment?

With the average person spending 90,000 hours at work over their lifetime, it’s understandable to want colleagues who are easy to get on with. A bad apple in the workplace can cause stress and conflict, which, as well as being unpleasant for everyone, impacts negatively on productivity.

One way that employers can create a happy and successful workplace is to ensure that new joiners ‘fit’ in. When jobs become available, cultural fit is now seen as a key factor along with skills and experience.

Creating a harmonious and friendly work environment is a sensible course of action, but hiring for a good ‘cultural fit’ can also have its dangers.

If recruitment is based on ‘cultural fit’, will we simply hire people who are like us – people who have common interests and come from similar backgrounds? Will we end up with a workplace populated with people from the same race, social class and, even, gender?

Can cultural fit just be a form of discrimination?

What is a cultural fit?

The US-based employee engagement experts, Culture Amp, define culture fit as “the concept of screening potential candidates to determine what type of cultural impact they would have on the organisation. This is based on the alignment of values, beliefs, and behaviours between the employee and employer.”

This sounds fair enough. Many businesses will detail their mission statement and company ethos on their website, and, almost without exception, the values described are ethically sound. The values will celebrate concepts such as common purpose, diversity, teamwork and community.

For example, BP states that “Whatever the strength of the individual, we will accomplish more together. We put the team ahead of our personal success and commit to building its capability. We trust each other to deliver on our respective obligations.”

Why cultural fit matters

Cultural fit IS important. If a business takes someone on and they don’t easily assimilate into the company, the impact can be costly and damaging.

Firstly, the new hire won’t enjoy the work environment, and may well leave a few months later. Recruitment is a costly business – so it is important that a new hire stays around. Tony Hsieh, the CEO of the global online shoe and clothing retailer, estimates his own bad hires have cost the business well over $100 million.

Secondly, bringing in a person who doesn’t get on with the team can have a detrimental effect on staff morale, which in turn reduces productivity. In an office where personalities clash, the atmosphere can quickly sour and disruptive cliques can form.

Thirdly, there is a risk of reputational damage if an employee who deals directly with customers or clients does not adhere to the values of the business.

Taking cultural fit into account when hiring would appear to be an essential recruitment policy. However, many people have deep concerns about the unintended consequences of hiring for a cultural fit.

The dangers of hiring for a cultural fit

The notion of a cultural fit should mean shared values in terms of work ethic, collaboration, problem-solving methods and common purpose. A business may have a politically correct mission statement, but does this play out at the coalface? Do employees even know what the business ethos is, let alone implement it?

In reality, ‘cultural fit’ regularly flips to become a question of whether or not the new person will ‘fit in’.

Derek Loosvelt, a writer for the industry insights website, The Vault, believes that “too often, fit and cultural fit means something to the effect of ‘You are like us in that you look like us, appreciate the same kind of food as us, come from the same racial and socioeconomic background as us, support the same professional sports team as us, even are the same gender as us.'”

Cultural fit can mutate to questions like “Will they come to the pub on Friday?” or what is known in America as the Airport Test: ‘Would I want to be stuck in an airport in Minneapolis in a snowstorm with them?’

Lauren A. Rivera, an Associate Professor of Management and Organisations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, researched the hiring practices of America’s top investment banks, management consultancies and law firms, and interviewed 120 decision-makers. She concluded that in many organisations, “fit has gone rogue”.

She noted that hiring professionals “consistently underscored the importance of cultural fit in hiring. Fit was not about a match with organisational values. It was about personal fit. Professionals at all levels of seniority reported wanting to hire people with whom they enjoyed hanging out and could foresee developing close relationships with. Fit was different from the ability to get along with clients. Fundamentally, it was about interviewers’ personal enjoyment and fun.”

The unintended consequence of hiring people we would ‘enjoy hanging out with’ is that, at a subconscious level, we all pick those we have something in common with. And that excludes people who are different to us.

Another study in America, for the Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics, which interviewed lawyers over a 15-year period, found that cultural fit at elite law firms favoured white men and reflected racial, gender and ethnic inequality.

Aside from the obvious need to tackle racism, a lack of diversity is bad for business. Research has shown that decisions made and executed by diverse teams delivered 60% better results. It is blindingly obvious that creativity will flow better when a team has different influences and life experiences.

How can cultural fit avoid a cultural imbalance?

Considering common goals and values is vitally important when hiring new people. It is also vital that businesses or law firms encourage diversity and equal opportunities for all, irrespective of race, gender or sexuality. Are the two goals mutually exclusive?

The answer has to be no!

Surely recruiting people with aligned values can be achieved without unconscious discrimination.

So, what needs to be done?

Firstly, the ethos and culture of an organisation needs to be clearly defined, but it also needs to be embraced and owned by everyone in the organisation. 

Lawyerist surmises this as follows: “Defined cultures and values help give purpose and direction for your employees so you can all work together towards common goals. When people can get a sense of your law firm culture from the outside, you’re more likely to attract ideal clients and hires for the business. But, if you struggle to articulate your own values, the room for mistakes is that much bigger.”

“Your values can and should guide and influence every decision you make… Take some time to really think about the values you want you, your firm, and your staff to exhibit. And once you have your values in place, write them down and share them with your staff and the world. Let people know what you stand for and how you approach your practice.”

At the same time, organisations should be sure they have policies in place which confront bias. For instance, CVs can be judged without the hiring manager seeing the name, age and gender of the applicant.

There are plenty of organisations which can offer advice on avoiding recruitment discrimination. For instance, many City law firms have signed up for the Race Fairness Commitment (RFC), which uses data analysis to improve the recruitment and retention rates of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) lawyers.

Legal Cheek’s Adam Mawardi spoke to Ngozie Azu, Head of International Relations at Slaughter and May about the initiative. Azu said “How does it actually feel to be Black in a firm like this? There will always be areas of differences – for example my unusual name, my hair and how I spend my leisure time. The challenge for firms is to ensure that they are creating an environment in which everyone can bring their most authentic selves to work without fear that our differences will mark us out or impact our ability to succeed.”

Align and succeed

Getting cultural fit recruitment can be difficult for employers to get right, but it is essential.

For job seekers, the task is much more straightforward.

Always read the mission statement, research the organisation and try to understand the business culture. If it doesn’t look right, it’s not the job for you. If it does, do your research and inform your interviewer that you respect their ethos and that want to contribute to it!

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