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“Culture Fit v. Culture Add”: Is the Question Too Reductive?

A lot of companies are dispensing with the term “culture fit” right now when it comes to diversity initiatives. Here's our take on it.

If you’re paying any attention to the diversity conversation in recruiting right now, you’re probably hearing that a lot of companies are choosing to dispense with the term “culture fit.” Facebook has explicitly asked its interviewers not to use the term when giving feedback on candidates; many of Gem’s own customers—Twilio, for example—have also banned the term. The thinking goes that hiring decisions made on “culture fit” tend to result in a homogenous workforce. Twilio wants, instead, to “look for candidates who offer culture contributions," bettering the company “without sacrificing their cultural identity.”

We can get behind that. After all, 59% of employees say they’d accept a job at another company that offered the same role, compensation, and benefits as the one they’re currently at. This suggests that the majority of employees assume there are better work cultures elsewhere. And if you’re in talent acquisition, you’re in an important position to help your organization understand the subtle ways any hiring philosophy can negatively impact diversity efforts. 

So the language is worth looking at… which is why we find ourselves wondering about the “v.” in the “culture-fit-v.-culture-add” question. After all, determining whether someone is aligned with your organization’s values will go a long way in foreseeing whether they’ll be happy working for you, or how long it’ll take them to become disengaged and unproductive. What’s more, certain traits and characteristics probably do lend themselves better than others to executing a given business’ strategy. And it’s worth noting that, while 82% of hiring managers believe measuring cultural fit is an important part of the recruitment process, only 54% say that their organization has a clearly-defined culture.

This may be one of the reasons hiring for “culture fit” has failed for companies: How do you determine “fit” when you haven’t defined the space you want to fit the candidate into? And if company culture can make or break a business (and it can!), then what’s the language, and what are the thought processes, that should go into determining whether a candidate is “right” for your culture? It’s a question worth asking, because you’ll need a common set of guidelines to express what a given candidate can contribute to your organization.

Culture Fit: A Definition, and its Impact

Before we go further, let’s define the term that’s falling out of favor. Here are the top three search results that come back for “culture fit definition”:

  • “Cultural Fit is defined as the individual's attitudes, values and beliefs being in line with the core values and culture of an organisation” (CompanyMatch)
  • “Cultural fit is the likelihood that someone will reflect and/or be able to adapt to the core beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors that make up your organization”  (Harvard Business Review)
  • “Cultural fit as the concept of screening potential candidates to determine what type of cultural impact they would have on the organization. This is based on the alignment of values, beliefs, and behaviors between the employee and employer” (Culture Amp)

The definitions vary minimally (though we like Culture Amp’s addition of “cultural impact”): All three focus on how a candidate will adapt and assimilate into a preexisting culture. But note the elements that need to align for “cultural fit”: attitudes, values, beliefs, and behaviors. As far as we see it at Gem, some of those elements are problematic, while others are valuable. We’re not interested in building a team with cookie-cutter beliefs and behaviors, for example; though we’re absolutely looking for values-alignment when we’re thinking about new hires. Our guess is that some of the elements in these definitions have made “cultural fit” a suspect term.

Pair that with the fact that it’s all too easy to read these definitions and think that “alignment” and “adaptation” = sameness—something a 2012 study called “Hiring as Cultural Matching” found. The study, based on interviews with 120 hiring decision-makers at elite professional-services firms, found that “shared experiences” was one of the most important factors used to determine culture fit. “Alignment” translated to “similarity of backgrounds”—and therefore, “similarity of viewpoints”—for most hiring managers. Over time, the term has taken on a tribal meaning, facilitating bias by giving recruiters, hiring managers, and companies permission to hire people that walk, talk, look, and think like them. And while there may be a superficial logic to that—no one’s rocking the boat—we all know about the disadvantages of a homogenous work culture.

When the term “culture fit” can be applied thoughtfully and deliberately to a hiring process—with attention to the ways teams define “alignment,” “adaptation,” and “fit,” and the ways unconscious bias creeps into interactions with candidates—it can be a great gauge for hiring candidates with shared values. But it’s often been reduced to “the beer test”: Is the candidate someone you’d want to have a beer with after work? It’s more commonly used as a reason to reject someone than it is to hire someone. And it prioritizes something that doesn’t matter at all to getting a job done well: personality.

Some Alternatives: Culture Add, Values Fit

In recent years, some alternatives have arisen among companies and talent teams that reject what “culture fit” has come to stand for.

The first is “culture add,” and it’s exactly what it sounds like: “The likelihood that someone will not only reflect the company’s values and professional ethics, but also bring diverse opinions, experiences, and specialized skills which enhance not just the team, but the overall company culture.” In this definition, culture add takes the best aspects of culture fit, advocating for the behaviors that will lead to organizational success. But it adds an important element: Where are the company’s cultural blindspots? What perspectives, experiences, and approaches are we missing? Where might we need our thinking and our processes challenged, and what kind of person would challenge them? You get both values-alignment and value-add here; and because you’re seeking experiences and perspectives that you’re currently lacking, homogeneity will never be a struggle. 

The second is “values fit.” While values fit doesn’t emphasize diversity, diversity will be a byproduct if you’re hiring talent who share your guiding principles and sense of purpose while working to reduce unconscious bias in the decision-making process. Aubrey Blanche, Global Head of Diversity and Belonging at Atlassian, describes values-fit as “hir[ing] people who share our goals, not necessarily our viewpoints or backgrounds.”

We're not 100% convinced that values-fit is a wholly bias-free framework for candidate evaluation (let's be honest; "values" is a vague term). But between it and culture add, it feels like the likelihood of misinterpretation—and of weaponizing in the name of sameness—is significantly lower than it is with "culture fit." Culture add-plus-values fit allows a company to stay true to its core values while inviting employees to bring their whole, authentic, unique selves to the table.

If you haven’t yet, we suggest sitting down with your colleagues in talent acquisition, your hiring managers, and others in your org, and clarifying the terms you want to use—deliberately—when evaluating a candidate. The three we’ve talked about here aren’t the only options; we’ve seen “cultural contribution,” “cultural impact,” and others. The point is to have a shared language, with a shared understanding of what the words you choose mean. And that includes the word “culture”: What does that word mean to your organization?

Whatever language you end up choosing, keep an eye out for a follow-up post with best practices to implement to ensure you’re hiring thoughtfully and deliberately, with your company’s culture in mind.

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