Where team building is concerned, cultural fit matters. At its best, assessing cultural fit helps determine whether individuals possess the qualities, perspectives, and attributes that will help them be successful in a particular company’s environment, and with its customers.
At its worst, assessing cultural fit can be discriminatory.
That’s the basis of a complaint recently filed by four people with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) alleging racist hiring practices at Facebook.
One of the complainants, a Black woman, claims she was told by someone at Facebook, “There’s no doubt you can do the job, but we’re really looking for a culture fit.”
Maybe she was, in fact, the best candidate; maybe she wasn’t. We can’t know from the outside looking in.
But since over 13 percent of U.S. population is Black, yet only 3.9 percent of Facebook’s nearly 60,000 employees are Black, the suit is clearly not a good look for the company.
Or for the importance often placed on hiring for cultural fit.
To some, “cultural fit” means people who think similarly. Who share the same interests. Who are fun to be with and hang with, even outside of work. Who, for example, like to “work hard, play hard.”
Makes sense: The smaller the team, the more “fit” can matter.
Or not — because few teams, no matter how small, need more of what they already have. People who build great teams constantly seek not to add more of the same, but to add what is lacking. Instead of choosing people who fit the present mold, smart leaders consider what a team is missing and look for qualified candidates who can bring those elements to the table.
Granted, some elements of cultural fit can be important. If you expect your team to work long hours and constantly be available, a candidate who strongly believes giving an employer eight hours a day is enough (not that there’s anything wrong with that) may not be a great fit for your environment.
Or if you’re running a fast-growing startup, a candidate who craves consistency and a steady environment may struggle in yours. On the other hand, a candidate who loves to wear multiple hats, and to constantly try on new ones, may thrive.
Or if you’re adding your first employees to your small business, a candidate who cares about job titles may not be a great fit. A candidate who cares about job duties — the things they get to accomplish, the decisions they get to make, the latitude and freedom to imagine and implement change — may thrive.
Or in practical terms: If you sell a product that requires salespeople to offer significant explanation and education during the sales cycle (think “evangelical” sales), a candidate whose only experience is responding to RFPs, or who has only worked in technical sales (think “features and functions”), may not be a great fit for your needs.
When you assess cultural fit, forget impossible to measure, much less define, intangible qualities. (If for no other reason than hiring for cultural fit, without establishing clear definitions and guidelines for determining and assessing a cultural fit, is shortsighted at best and discriminatory at worst.)
And then there’s this: A 2012 study published in the American Sociological Review says “cultural matching” can have a significant effect on applicants’ evaluations and “often outweighed concerns about absolute productivity.” In short: “Fitting in” carried more appraisal weight than actual performance.
Instead, focus on tangible qualities required to thrive in your workplace. Work habits. Work styles. Values. Attitudes. Ethics.
The behaviors that lead to success.
Then select the candidates who can do the job — because that always comes first — and who also bring a few elements, qualities, or perspectives your team is currently missing.
Because that’s the way you build a team: By adding the kind of people who can help your team be even more successful.
That’s also the way you build a great culture — because we all want to feel valued for who we are as individuals.