Cultural Fit – the Good, the Bad, or the Ugly?

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CowboyOne of the many reasons why The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is such a legendary film is that it does not present its central issues in black and white. It is a film in the best tradition of the 1960s, when filmmakers were not afraid to show that the world is often gray: the Good are not that good, the Bad are not that bad, and the Ugly are not that ugly (Eli Wallach would have loved this).

The same is true for the concept of “cultural fit ” in recruitment. Cultural fit is not inherently good or bad, and it has the potential to be quite ugly. It all depends on how the recruiter chooses to use it when hunting for the best person for the job.

The Good

The concept of cultural fit has probably existed in one form or another since time immemorial. It is not unimaginable that a supervisor working on the Tower of Babel  would have hired people who liked the same beer and the same version of Gilgamesh  as he did.

In the 1980s, however, cultural fit started becoming more and more prominent, and over the last 30-odd years, we have seen it become a truly dominant force in hiring. It is not difficult to see why this is the case.

When you recruit a person who is a good cultural fit, you are hiring someone who will understand what the company is all about and who will have no trouble settling in and contributing. This person will also put in more effort than someone who is there just to make money.

Teams made of people with similar backgrounds and cultural “traits” will be more likely to look out for each other. For example, look at the Pals battalions championed by General Sir Henry Rawlinson during World War I.

In short, with a good cultural fit, you get increased efficiency, more effort, and a more collegial atmosphere in the workplace. In some cases, identifying a good cultural fit might also enable a business owner to attract better talent than they can afford:  Some candidates are willing to work in culturally comfortable environments even if the money is not that great.

The Bad

RodeoUnfortunately, as the world and our film of the day teach us, very few things are perfect in this world. Cultural fit is not one of those things. Cultural fit can cause some serious problems down the line if too much value is attributed to it.

When recruiters rely too much on cultural fit, they can produce situations in which all, or at least most, of the team members (this may denote the entire employee pool of a company) share the same views and see the world in the same way. This may seem like a good thing, but that’s not the case.

When you have a team that is too homogenous, you run the risk of building a team of people who approach every task and problem from the same position. What is a stumbling block for one member becomes a stumbling block for all team members. If the team were more diverse, however, it would probably have an easier time solving problems through creative thinking.

Furthermore, an overly homogenous team may become an inhospitable environment for anyone who does not perfectly fit the bill, so to speak. People who do not share the same cultural values might find it extremely difficult to fit in on the team. They may even feel pressured to change who they are just to get along – which is never a good thing.

Finally, if too much emphasis is put on cultural fit, it is possible that the recruiter will lose the sight of some even more important factors in the hiring process – e.g., the skills that someone possesses, their expertise, and even their personality traits.

The Ugly

Now that the good and the bad sides of cultural fit have been covered, it is time to explore its ugly side. Namely, cultural fit is nowadays sometimes employed as a convenient way to mask certain kinds of discrimination. Unfortunately, this practice is surprisingly common.

This issue is so well covered by an article from Forbes that there is really not much that could be added here. Suffice it to say that cultural fit can be perversely used by some unscrupulous employers to make all sorts of bad hiring decisions.

HorseIn essence, there is bit of both Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef in the concept of cultural fit. The most important takeaway from all of this is to not allow cultural fit to becometoo dominant in the recruitment process. Remember that cultural fit is a useful recruiting tool, but it is not the be-all and end-all of the matter.

And, please, try to keep the Eli Wallach out of it (no disrespect to Mr. Wallach, of course).

By James Burbank