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The Importance of Cultural Fit in Hiring

Posted by Bob Corlett on May 31, 2009

It is often said that people are hired for skills but fired for "fit."  But what is fit, and how can you determine it before making a hire? While definitions abound, I think fit is partly about personal values and partly about "how we like to do things around here."

While small variations in fit are usually tolerated, big variations, over time, become irritations to everyone on the team. Eventually the sum of those irritations begins to gum up the works, draining everyone's energy and lowering team productivity. The entire team is relieved and re-energized when the misfit finally leaves. If you are the misfit -- as I have been -- it's torture to be in an organization that is not in keeping with your personal values.

So how do you avoid hiring a mis-fit? Well, first, you need to take an objective look at your own work environment. Then, when you are interviewing people, you need to look beyond their credentials and experience, and instead look at how they achieved their results in their last few jobs. Look at both what they enjoyed and what they struggled with in their past jobs ... and see how your environment compares.

As a guidepost for your thinking --  just to begin to sketch out the contours of cultural fit -- I present the following list of components. I've tried to present a spectrum of values, so please don't take these as an either/or but rather a range of positions on the spectrum.

I'm sure the list is incomplete, so I welcome your thoughts about what else to include:


  • How much deference is shown to those in power? Are they ever interrupted in a meeting? How often does someone disagree with them to their face? How often to do they solicit input and how carefully do they listen to those who disagree? When you look at the organization, who is "in favor" and how did they earn that role?

  • Is power and authority delegated to people on the front lines -- those in customer facing roles -- or is power held by executives higher in the org chart? Can anyone pull resources and collaborate informally as they need to, or are multi-departmental teams formed and disbanded for specific projects? Are there firmly established work groups to get things done, or do people always work strictly within their department, firmly within the lines of the org chart?

  • Resource allocation. Resources and promotions are given to people who demonstrate what? (connections and relationships, business results, experience, new revenue or cost savings, etc.)

Personal Work Style

  • How is work performed? Is it mostly individual achievement or mostly group achievement? Do people primarily get results on their own or in conjunction with colleagues? Does the performance management and compensation structure support this? What types of results are celebrated and recognized (individual or group)? Is recognition given for results, and if it is, is the recognition public or private?

  • Is the path forward clear? How urgent is the need for change? Do you expect this person to bring fresh approaches and new ideas, to immediately challenge the status quo? Or is it more important to take a more measured, gradual approach that emphasizes collaboration, demonstrating respect for others, listening to a diversity of opinions and gently building consensus?

  • How does everyone else feel about change? Do you want your new hire to be a catalyst for change, or is it more important to fit in with their peers? Will their peers and subordinates be welcoming of change, desperate for innovation, or is the environment more one of "Things are good. Don’t rock the boat. We know what we are doing here, and you are just the new guy."

  • Are you looking for a formal or informal approach to other people? (Do you address the CEO as "Mrs. Smith" or "Jane?") Is there a formal dress code, how formal are meetings? Do you walk down the hall and stand in someone’s door or send an email and schedule a meeting? Do you follow protocol and send memos or just yell across the room?

Decision Making Latitude

  • Is it a structured or unstructured work environment -- is there an established path to achieve results (follow the rules, ask the boss, defer it to the committee), or do you use a more creative individualistic approach, "We trust you and expect you to make it up as you go along . . . just keep us informed.")

  • Are new ideas welcomed, met with skepticism or ridiculed?

  • Are small decisions made quickly on the fly, or more slowly and deliberately? Are alternative points of view solicited?

  • Are big decisions made by executive fiat, or by committee consensus, or only after inclusive and robust input, as in, "You can always have your say but cannot always have your way."

  • Decision consistency; are management decisions often reversed later or are they final? Does the Board of Directors determine direction and policy, or does management often lead the Board to a course of action? Once a decision is made does the organization tend to "stay the course" despite external events and internal politics, or are decisions revisited frequently as politics shift or new information emerges? Do you have a CEO that loves to bring in new ideas from the latest management books? Are there a lot of new management initiatives or just a few major initiatives executed with relentless focus?

  • How are disagreements handled? Is open debate encouraged or discouraged? Is influence exerted openly or behind closed doors? Is all communication low-key, polite, understated and reserved? Are people respectful, yet openly passionate and occasionally heated? Or is the debate more like verbal combat, and often laced with profanity? Does the best idea carry the day, or just the person with more power?

  • Are mistakes expected, just tolerated, or simply unacceptable? Are mistakes an embarrassing sign of failure and flawed process, or just a sign you are trying new things and "swinging for the fences?"

Management Style

  • Are people managed to broad goals and given wide latitude, or do you gradually let people "earn their freedom" by starting with small achievements?

  • Do employees set their own goals, collaborate on setting their goals, or are they simply assigned goals from above (sometimes derisively called "managed by spreadsheet.") Are goals incorporated into everyday work -- reviewed daily, weekly, monthly, annually -- or not ... at all? How much of compensation is linked to goal achievement? What are the consequences of not meeting goals?

  • What guides priorities and drives behavior? Are people Customer service driven?  Mission driven? Personal results driven? Goals driven? Market driven? Metrics driven? Relationship driven? Strategic plan driven? Or simply, pleasing-the-boss-and-staying-out-of-trouble-driven?

  • How exactly are results measured? How transparent are the results to others? How often are they discussed? How do you know who the high performers are? Can they measure their performance by objective standards on their own?

  • Is clear specific direction always provided or is more self directed action the norm?

Work / Life Expectations

  • Is this role good for someone seeking Work/Life balance or is it a full throttle, flat out 24/7 as in, "This is too important and there is no time to waste. You’ll get 2 years of experience for every year you work here. You can catch up on your sleep in your next job." Do people join your organization to significantly advance their career or to achieve an important mission? Does the work itself provide meaning to people's lives?

  • Is it young fun, single, with lots of after hours socializing expected or are employees more likely to dash home at quitting time so they can coach their kids' soccer team?

  • Is it cool aloof corporate separation of work and personal (no family pictures on your desk) or is it full engagement -- we are a family, no separation of personal lives -- where everyone knows everything about each other?

  • Is there a steady predictable schedule with fairly repetitive work, or is the work mostly predictable with some occasional spikes (for the annual meeting, etc), or is every day simply flat out unpredictable chaos with no two days looking the same?

  • Work ethic: Is it: 80 hour week -- come in early, work hard, skip lunch, work late in the evening, check email and take calls on weekends? Or is it a 55-60 hour week -- come in early, work hard, eat lunch at your desk and leave an hour or so late most days? Or is it a predictable work schedule that works well with a car pool or specific day care schedule? Or is it totally flexible -- a Results Only Work Environment -- come in on your own schedule, crank out the results we expect, work from home sometimes, stay late sometimes, eat lunch wherever you want, or not, just get your work finished. Or is it some unique combination of the above? How do you feel about flextime, telecommuting, overnight travel, and working nights and weekends?

You'll notice that job descriptions and job advertising rarely mention any of  these factors and that very little of these factors can be discerned from reading someone's resume. Knowing someone has relevant experience, credentials, and technical skills does almost nothing to predict fit. This is one of many reasons why the resume is overrated in the candidate selection process.



If you'd like to stop wasting your time on the irrelevant, superficial aspects of interviewing, and start understanding the deeper elements of what really predicts success a new hire, read our post on How to Conduct a Job Interview so Top Performers Actually Want to Take Your Job.  And, if you prefer all that research and information pulled together in one document, download our Employer Guide to Interviewing. 

Employer Guide to Interviewing | Staffing Advisors


Of course, interviews are only one component of a great hiring process, our Resource Center has additional topics you might find helpful: 

  • How to Write Job Descriptions to Attract Great Candidates
  • How to Handle Glassdoor Reviews
  • How to make your Hiring Process More Certain, Predictable and Consistent
  • How to Evaluate Your Own Hiring Process
  • How to Replace Underperforming Employees

One final disclaimer: This advice is primarily for professional hiring in a large metropolitan area. Our perspective is shaped by our work in a retained executive search firm, conducting searches for CEO and senior staff positions. We've completed over 600 searches for associations and other nonprofits in major metropolitan areas like Washington DC, New York, and Chicago, but not all of our advice will be relevant if you are interviewing for other types of positions in other job markets. 

Topics: Interviewing Executives