Cultural Fit: Why You Should Stop Hiring for It

Published by:
Joe Caccavale
September 19, 2023
min read

In this article:

'Cultural fit' is a term that's often fuzzy and unclear but widely used in hiring. It essentially means whether a candidate shares a company's values and goals.

While having great company culture is important, placing too much emphasis on how well candidates fit within the existing company culture is a big mistake. This approach can limit diversity and block new ideas. 

So, why should we stop hiring for cultural fit? Let's explore what 'cultural fit' means, its impact on diversity, and a better approach to hiring for company culture.

What is cultural fit?

‘Cultural fit’, also known as ‘culture fit’, is the idea that candidates should be assessed to determine how well they’d ‘fit in’ with an organisations’ culture.

The thinking behind culture fit is to find candidates who will work harmoniously with the existing team and uphold the existing workplace culture. 

Scratch beneath the surface, however, and it comes to signify whether a candidate closely resembles existing employees – perhaps in appearance, class, race, education, or a multitude of other arbitrary factors. The result of hiring on cultural fit (whether consciously or otherwise) is therefore a fairly homogenous workforce, and as we’ll see, this has some serious consequences.

How do companies interview for cultural fit?

Culture fit interviews generally take the form of casual conversations and meet the team tests. These types of interviews can often become an assessment of how well we get on with a candidate.

Naturally our biases will creep into the decision-making process as candidates reveal more about themselves. How someone dresses, speaks, where they went to university, or their favourite football team can all influence our perception of them.

“What most people mean by culture fit is hiring people they’d like to have a beer with.” - Patty McCord, Ex-Chief Talent Officer at Netflix.

This can be as much about unfairly favouring a candidate as it is overlooking another. Whilst being able to work with someone is a factor worth considering, people typically enjoy hanging out with people like themselves.

The problem with hiring for culture fit

The main problem with ‘cultural fit’ is that, more often than not, it’s driven by unconscious biases. These are implicit judgements that hover below the surface of our consciousness, based on little other than stereotypes and prejudice. And we don't have any control over them – they’re just part of our nature.

When it comes to hiring on ‘cultural fit’, the most common unconscious bias that recruiters experience is called ‘affinity bias’. This bias leads recruiters to favour candidates that resemble them in one or more aspects, whilst negatively assessing those that are different. If a candidate looks, talks, and thinks like you, or shares an understanding of certain social cues indicative of shared class, then you’re more likely to positively appraise their abilities and ‘cultural fit’. If they’re somehow different to you in the same aspects, then the opposite is true.

When left unchecked, hiring based on cultural fit can lead to a workforce completely lacking in diversity.

What is culture add?

Instead of culture ‘fit’, some diversity-focused companies have made the switch to culture ‘add’.

Rather than looking at whether or not someone fits in with the company culture, this approach looks at what someone can add to it.

This is a healthier, more inclusive way of thinking about culture - as something to be built upon and evolved over time. Culture add allows organisations to attract and hire a more diverse array of talent and values outsider thinking and new perspectives.

Key Differences: 'culture fit' vs 'culture add'

Culture fit Culture add
Definition Emphasises finding candidates who align with the existing company culture and values. Focuses on bringing in individuals who can enhance the existing culture or bring new perspectives and diversity.
Hiring Approach Seeks candidates who already fit the established culture and share similar traits and values. Looks for candidates who may not perfectly match the current culture but can contribute positively to it.
Outcome Can lead to a more homogeneous workplace where everyone is similar in background, thinking, and values. Encourages diversity and inclusion by welcoming different perspectives and backgrounds. Embraces change and innovation, as it may introduce fresh ideas and perspectives.

Should you be hiring for culture add?

Whilst culture add is certainly a more positive framing, it still lacks any sort of objectivity. Two candidates could potentially ‘add’ two very different perspectives, who’s to say which is the most valuable? 

So, what’s an employer to do?

A much, much better way of hiring is by assessing candidates on skill alone. We know from decades of research that focussing on skills over credentials and taking gut instinct out of the equation results in better hires, greater return and improves diversity.

It also helps companies to reframe their ideas about ‘culture’ – rather than assessing candidates in terms of how well they fit with culture, they start viewing them in terms of what they can add to it. ‘Cultural fit’ therefore becomes ‘cultural add’, and isn’t a criteria used to bar the way for the most able candidates.

Shifting from 'culture fit' to 'mission & values alignment'

At Applied, we’ve ditched culture-based assessments altogether in favour of ‘mission and values alignment’. All we want to know is: are candidates as passionate about our mission as we are and are they aligned with the core values we believe will get us there?

Yes, there is value in testing candidates’ alignment with your organisation but using the term ‘culture’ isn’t the fairest or most effective means of doing this.

Here’s a comparison that highlights the shift:

Mission / Values Alignment Culture Fit Alignment
  • Passion for your company’s mission
  • A shared approach to working/collaborating
  • A shared educational, cultural, or professional background
  • Similar demographic (age, social class etc)
  • Mutual hobbies/interests

*Note: bias-free value alignment testing depends on how inclusive your values are. We tried to make our values as demographically neutral as possible, instead of focusing on the way in which we work.

These questions don’t need to dig deep into a candidates’ psyche, you can simply ask, ‘Why are you applying for a job here (as opposed to anywhere else) and why now?’

Whilst many organisations have an entire assessment round dedicated to culture fit, we believe this is just one part of the equation and shouldn’t be valued over skills. We recommend mission/values alignment questions be weighted equally to any other interview question.

By shifting your focus towards assessing alignment with your company's mission and values, you not only cultivate a more purpose-driven team but also foster an environment that celebrates diversity and inclusion, leading to richer perspectives and innovation. This approach enables you to objectively identify candidates who are genuinely passionate about what your organisation stands for.

These candidates may not be your first choice of drinking buddies… but if they have the skills and the motivation, this shouldn’t matter.

Interested in learning more about how Applied can improve your hiring processes? Start a free trial to see how our hiring software can save you time and money, whilst increasing diversity and the quality of your new hires.