What job applicants need to know about culture fit

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30 November 2017

It all started with a Larry Kim tweet. The patron saint of internet marketers threw down the gauntlet and wrote that hiring for culture fit is the “worst thing you can do.”

Now here at Enhancv, we’re huge fans of company culture. It’s been one of our greatest strengths as we’ve grown. So this felt a bit like a shot across the bow. With that in mind, I responded to Larry Kim, defending our beloved culture fit.

And he shot right back. You can see the exchange below (or see the original on Twitter):

Enhancv What job applicants need to know about culture fit Culture Fit

Seeing how emphatic he was in his disagreement, I decided to do a little digging to see if I might be missing something. Next thing I knew, my understanding of culture fit was turned upside down. It slowly dawned on me: Larry Kim was onto something.

In the process, I realized that job applicants everywhere need to start keeping a keen eye out for people abusing the idea of culture fit. Later on, I’ll share some tips on how to do this.

But culture fit is so awesome!

Having worked in places where I felt there was a strong company culture which I fit into as well as places where… let’s say that wasn’t the case (looking at you US House of Representatives), I can say there’s a massive difference. There’s the feeling of being part of a team, the joys of going on adventures as a company, and just getting to know your colleagues as an equal.

After joining Enhancv, this feeling was only reinforced. From the start, I’ve felt that the company culture here is Enhancv’s greatest asset. There’s an attitude of constructive criticism, optimism, and openness that I genuinely love. So what’s the problem with hiring someone who fits into that culture?

…when it’s done right

So the answer to the above question is: potentially, a lot. As in… how much time do you have?

Here’s a brief overview. Lars Schmidt explained in Forbes: “In some organizations ‘culture fit’ has become a weaponized phrase that interviewers use as a blanket term to reject candidates that don’t match the hiring manager’s view of the ideal candidate”

Often the discrimination is not conscious. Professor Lauren Riviera at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management points out that “Interviewers look for a sense of connection, often seeking potential friends and “playmates” rather than those with the best work experience or job-relevant skills.”

Jon-Mark Sabel writing in Hirevue was a bit more blunt about the problem: “See, it’s illegal when applicants are screened out based on age, race, and gender – but it’s not illegal to screen them out based on culture. If company’s “culture” just so happens to be young, white, and male, what’s to keep them from “hiring for culture” and screening out women and minorities?”

Clearly, the right company culture can be a tremendous benefit. But it also has the potential to build toxic, discriminatory monocultures. Question is, what can be done about it?

What job applicants can do

Obviously people doing the actual hiring need to change the way they consider culture fit, but I wanted to give some advice to job applicants regarding what they can do to make sure they don’t face discrimination or get hired by a company that uses culture fit in the wrong way.

First, do your research

Take a look at the company’s blog, social media presence, website, really anywhere with information about them. How do they represent themselves and their values? Is it something limiting like “we’re all into extreme sports” or something more inclusive like “we’re dedicated to maintaining a learner’s mindset in everything we do”?

Then check out their pictures. Does everyone look like they’re a similar age, race, culture, etc.? If so, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re discriminating in hiring, but it’s something worth asking about. Speaking of asking…

Next, ask questions

You can actually ask the person in charge of hiring whether they hire for culture fit and what that means to them. This is a great way to begin getting an idea of what a company believes about hiring and whether it might be a good place to work.

Alternatively, try asking what the company’s employees have in common, what binds them together. You can also try asking what the company is looking to add to or change about their company culture.

If, however, you have an idea about what a company is looking to add to its culture before the interview stage, you should try adding elements to your resume to show how you will accomplish this.

Go beyond the semantics

Getting back to Larry Kim’s tweet, while I’ve come to fully agree with him on how problematic culture fit can be, I still have a point of contention. Ultimately, I think the “culture fit” vs “culture add” debate is overly focused on semantics. Whichever label you use, the substance is what matters. So whatever word you use, make sure company culture is about inclusivity and building a better company. When we put our focus there, everyone wins.

Eric D. Halsey

A writer with a passionate belief in the power of peer to peer learning and storytelling to change lives. Wants nothing more than to spend a day cooking, reading books, playing board games, and discussing history and politics with friends. Also always up for an adventure!

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