Let me put my cards on the table: If you ask me if it’s critical to hire for cultural fit, I’ll buck the current thinking and say “no”.

Now before you get up in arms about my obvious lack of appreciation for culture, allow me to explain.

Cultures Need to Evolve

Hiring for fit with your current culture reinforces that culture. It preserves the status quo. But what if your culture needs to think or act differently? What if you need to evolve your culture as all organizations do at one time or another?

One of our clients was recruiting for a key executive position. It came down to two candidates, both of whom had the capabilities and experience for the role. One of the candidates was a natural fit with the culture; the other was a stretch. What did our client do? They selected the second candidate, the one who they felt would stretch the culture in the direction it needed to go. The candidate who would create constructive cultural tension.

It wasn’t about hiring for cultural fit. It was about hiring for cultural evolution.

Cultural Fit or Conformity?

But let’s assume you want to perpetuate your current culture. Why wouldn’t you hire for cultural fit? As Deborah Aarts explains in her article, The Dangers of Hiring for ‘Culture Fit’, hiring for cultural fit is, for many, becoming the code term for hiring for conformity – personality types, communication styles, and, yes, perhaps even gender and other non-job-related characteristics, that match our own. In short, the boundary between hiring for cultural fit and hiring that discriminates (conscious or not) has become increasingly blurred. Be careful: your definition of “cultural fit” may not be valid.

Is Cultural Diversity the Answer?

If too much conformity isn’t good then perhaps the answer is diversity. Many promote diversity – hiring people with different backgrounds, perspectives and life experiences – as both a moral imperative and a benefit to business. And with good reason. Yet the definition of diversity can also be problematic. If you hire a white woman, a black man, and an Asian with a disability, should you pat yourself on the back? Maybe not. If they all came from upper-middle class backgrounds, lived in the suburbs, and attended top-tier private universities, have you really hired for diversity?

If you truly want people with different backgrounds, perspectives and life experiences then maybe you should hire a drug dealer, a white supremacist, and a thief. But is that really the kind of diversity you want?

Diversity needs to have boundaries. Not all diversity is acceptable or even desirable. We need to define the kind of diversity we want to have and be clear on why it’s important.

Common Ground

So where does this leave us? The answer lies beyond the overly simplistic views of wanting to hire for cultural fit or for diversity. What you want is an organization designed to win. For some things (like core values) you absolutely want cultural fit; they should be required of everyone. Yet for other things (like creative skills) you want diversity; you don’t want people with identical backgrounds who all think and act the same.

What should drive your hiring decisions is not cultural fit or diversity. It’s winning. And putting together the team that can best help you win.

Make it happen.


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