Reframing Culture Fit to Avoid Its Dangers

Author: David B. Weisenfeld

Date: May 23, 2023

There is a lot of talk these days about ensuring new hires are a good fit for a company's culture. But trouble can occur when "culture fit" becomes a euphemism for something else.

"I typically cringe when I hear decision-makers use the term because it is a conveniently amorphous criterion that is often used to maintain the organization's status quo," said employment attorney Cindy-Ann Thomas, co-chair of Littler EEO and Diversity Practice Group and a former HR executive.

HR consultant Patty McCord, a former chief talent officer at Netflix, boiled it down further when she told the Wall Street Journal a few years ago, "What most people mean by culture fit is hiring people they'd like to have a beer with."

But the person you might like to have a beer with might not make for the best employee. So, is culture fit a term best put out to pasture, or does it have benefits?

Defining Culture Fit Correctly

"It all comes down to how we are defining it," said Mark Arell, vice president of talent and organization development at Herc Rentals. Defined correctly, Arell sees culture fit as having value.

"For me, it comes down to hiring people aligned with a company's core values and who are enthusiastic about its mission." Using that definition, culture fit can work because the employer will, in fact, have a problem if an employee does not fit its values or mission, according to Arell.

But culture fit cannot be gut feel or simply leadership's opinion. If company culture fails to consider unique contributions, beliefs and diverse perspectives, Arell acknowledges it will fail. "You don't want a totally homogenous workforce," he said.

"[Culture fit] could be a euphemism, but if it is you're probably using the wrong definition."

The Comfort Zone

So how does a company know if it is misusing culture fit in the hiring process? There are some common red flags to watch for, according to Cindy-Ann Thomas, including:

  • "I just have a really good (or bad) feeling about that candidate."
  • "She reminds me of myself!"
  • "I'm just not sure how the rest of the team might respond to him."
  • "He went to my college."

If you hear those quotes, you've likely entered the "comfort zone." And that, says Thomas, is a dangerous place to be.

"When employers enable their decision-makers to lead from a place of comfort, 'culture fit' is the catchphrase they often resort to if that candidate does not mirror what they are used to, what they like, and what is easiest for them to work with," Thomas said.

Discrimination Risks

The comfort zone could open up employers to discrimination risks. Jon Hyman, author of the Ohio Employer Law Blog and chairperson of the employment and labor practice group at Wickens Herzer Panza, warns that when using "fit" or "culture" as hiring criteria, you risk closing out segments of the population from consideration. Hyman explained, "Someone in the perceived class could take not being the right fit as my culture doesn't match how the office looks."

"You can't just say you're not a good fit without more," he added. And that's especially true if the person being described is Black, Brown or is an individual with a disability.

A worst-case scenario is that using irrelevant "fit" criteria could lead to discrimination claims. That's why, Thomas says, it is critical that job descriptions and interview processes be relevant, validated and consistent.

Culture fit also can be an issue at the end of employment. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld the use of "fit" to justify an adverse employment decision. It noted that describing an employee as not a "good fit" is an assessment employers make all the time. Jon Hyman wrote that while he understood the rationale, he remains uncomfortable with an employer relying on "fit" to justify personnel decisions.

He explained that it might be totally innocuous, or they might be saying:

  • "You're not white."
  • "You're not male."
  • "You're too old."

For her part, Thomas notes that organizations that operate from a place of comfort are not inherently "bad" or discriminatory companies. But, she adds, "They are likely depriving themselves of operating at their full potential."

Culture Fit Consideration Takeaways

Thomas concluded that while companies need not avoid culture fit considerations altogether, they DO need to be mindful about how they are integrating and defining the concept.

In voicing a similar sentiment, Mark Arell noted, "You will have a problem if someone doesn't fit with the values and mission, but mission and values can't just be wall art."

To prevent it from being "wall art," screening techniques in the hiring process must underscore mission and values. Some interview questions Thomas recommends to help evaluate the appropriate cultural alignment between company and candidate may include:

  • A candidate's ideal workplace environment (e.g., independent vs. collaborative, office-centric vs. remote);
  • How a candidate responds to or works through stress, or how they handle disappointment;
  • Lessons learned from a mistake the candidate made in the past;
  • Views on what organizations should do to maximize employee engagement; and
  • The reason(s) for a candidate's interest in the company.

Members of hiring committees who hear their colleagues voice advocacy or concerns for candidates based on culture fit should ask them to explain what they mean. Thomas advises being prepared to give a firm "nudge" to ensure the "fit" they are discussing is linked to functionality and not to comfort.