What Does "Culture Fit" Actually Mean?

I was in the final stage of interviews at a large tech company in Silicon Valley when the conversation turned from experience to hobbies. “What do you like to do outside of work?” the hiring manager asked me, smiling. I racked my brain—I do lots of things: read, write, run—but I didn’t know why she cared. For a question about hobbies, is there a right or wrong answer?

It turns out, there probably is. “Many companies ask about your life outside of work to see if you’ll thrive in their company culture,” says Jessica Felts, senior manager of growth and development at Medallia “they’re trying to understand if your values line up.”

The idea of “culture fit” has become increasingly prevalent in recent years, as companies struggle to retain their young talent. Deloitte’s 2016 Millennial Survey found that two-thirds of millennials want to leave their current jobs by the year 2020, citing, among other things, “a conflict of values.”

“Culture can be a really uniting force,” a people & culture scientist from a prominent Bay Area startup told me. “But it can also drive people away. From a longevity perspective, it’s important to create an environment that attracts and retains the right talent.”

At Zappos, recruiters look for candidates whose attitudes align with their 10 core values: things like “deliver WOW through service” and “create fun and a little weirdness.” For a company that’s built on customer service, these attributes make sense. “Companies like Zappos who align on core values generally function with less friction,” says Corey Barker, who led change management there back in 2011. “This alignment results in an environment where people can produce their best work.”

But how do you test for something like “create a little weirdness”? Unfortunately, culture assessments are often mistaken for likability assessments, according to Lauren Jackman, head of diversity and inclusion at Medallia. “People rely on gut feelings rather than a predetermined set of criteria,” she says. Oftentimes, these feelings form within seconds of meeting someone, and are informed by unconscious biases based on cues from their accent or appearance. “When people rely on gut instinct, they tend to hire candidates who are similar to them. This creates a homogenous culture, but not necessarily a positive one,” she says.

In contrast, Jackman says, an interview process that tests for true values alignment will generally have the following attributes:

  • A defined rubric. Recruiters who assess candidates using a defined rubric are less likely to act on implicit biases or be highly influenced by emotion. Values-alignment interviews are treated, in this respect, much like skills-based interviews, incorporating qualitative and quantitative data as evidence of shared values.
  • Specific culture criteria. The now famous Netflix culture deck lists 9 attributes that are core to their company culture, things like strategic thinking and tenacity. Culture criteria serve as indicators of future success at the company, and focus values-alignment interviews on what is most important.
  • Flexibility in expression. Values-alignment interviewers understand how their company values show up differently for people of different backgrounds. For example, Medallia has found that one of their core company values, growth mindset, manifests differently in recent graduates compared to tenured employees.
  • A structured process. Companies who assess candidates on values alignment generally have designated teams of interviewers specifically for this purpose. Following a structured process allows each interviewer to make more equitable comparisons across candidates.

“Companies should look for candidates who will add to their company culture, not conform to it,” Jackman added. “The goal should be to find people who push the culture forward.”

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