What Went Wrong with Culture Fit in Tech?

Culture fit: It’s a concept that has dominated conversations among recruiting and hiring teams. A seemingly harmless idea on the surface, recruiting for culture fit prioritizes candidates who reflect a company’s culture as it exists today. In theory, this sounds great: Hiring people who want to work for your organization and easily mesh with the culture. The challenge is, some leaders act on initiatives to boost company culture without clearly defining what that culture entails.

A study by Cubiks found that 82 percent believed measuring cultural fit was an important part of the recruitment process, but only 54 percent said their organizations had a clearly defined culture. So let’s unpack what went wrong with culture fit, and reframe that narrative for the modern talent acquisition process.

What is Culture Fit?

Although a significant number of respondents from the Cubiks study said that their organizations don’t have a clear definition of their culture or standard methods to measure how an individual fits within in, 59 percent reported that they’ve rejected a candidate because they lacked cultural fit.

By definition, culture fit is… well, in the hiring process, it’s usually whatever the interviewer or decision-maker wants it to be. In other words, there is no fixed definition, which is where hiring teams run into trouble. As Courtney Seiter, Director of People at Buffer explained: The phrase can either be a gauge for your company’s values, or something as simple as whether or not you would want to get a beer with the candidate after work. It’s not exactly a scientific measure of a candidate’s on-the-job potential.

Prioritizing culture fit without a clear, company-wide understanding of what that culture means can be harmful to tech companies for various reasons, such as introducing bias, uniformity, irrelevancy, a lack of innovation and creativity, stunted problem-solving ability, and a faulty feedback loop that fulfills existing prejudices.

What’s more, Wharton management professor Katherine Klein suggests: “The biggest problem is that while we invoke cultural fit as a reason to hire someone, it is far more common to use it to not hire someone. People can’t tell you what aspect of the culture they are worried about.”

Recruiting and hiring is not a popularity contest, and that mentality is at least one of the factors contributing to the so-called “tech bro” or “brogrammer” culture that is so frequently associated with Silicon Valley. If today’s HR professionals want to put a stop to this phenomenon, it’s time to move towards a more focused and intentional strategy.

Shifting Company Culture to Company Values

While some tech firms such as Facebook have already cut out the term “culture fit” from their interviewing and hiring process, others such as Pandora and Atlassian have opted to use terms like “cultural contribution,” “cultural add,” or “values fit.”

Professor Sigal Barsade of Wharton shares: “The only way that culture in the workplace is effective is if there are sets of values that help the company achieve its strategy.”

By taking a more values-centric approach, organizations can improve their hiring outcomes by helping align prospective candidates with the company in ways that go beyond just liking their coworkers. As a company’s culture inevitably grows and changes, its core values should remain the same and hold their place within the organization.

If a company wants to reshape the way it views culture, the most effective route would be to start from the ground up, by clearly defining three to five core values. Factor in the current employer brand, perceived culture and candidate expectations. Be sure to involve your key stakeholders in this process. Then, apply those core values to other steps in the hiring process—especially the interview, which is usually where most culture-fit conversations occur.

Mitigate the risk of unconscious bias by introducing a standard method of measuring potential newcomers, with a structured set of questions to ask every interviewee. The goal of these questions should be to gauge a prospective candidate’s alignment with your company values. Barsade’s examples include questions such as: “How much of a team player are you? How detail-oriented? What type of emotions do you tend to display or suppress?”

The key is to focus on hiring people with shared goals, not shared viewpoints and backgrounds. Support structured interviewing with programs to help uncover and overcome bias. You could even implement unconscious bias training to help hiring managers and other key stakeholders prepare to talk with prospective tech candidates.

Continuously Reflect, Discuss and Improve

After clearly defining the core values, tech companies can broaden their scope and promote place-making rather than simple inclusivity, by creating space for several types of candidates. This can aid in expanding the culture in a way that champions what individual employees add to the organization. One way to implement this is to have an ongoing dialogue about gaps in culture. Buffer, for example, asks their hiring team questions such as: “Does this person offer a dimension that our culture might be missing? In what ways might this person challenge our thinking and processes? Will this person bring a viewpoint or context we may be missing?”

On the recruiter side, it’s pretty well-known that tech recruiting cannot (and should not) be based on the likelihood of hanging out with the candidate post-hire. Emphasize a conversation around core values, interview questions and company culture with your hiring managers. Establishing a shared understanding early on can help you cover the funnel from top to bottom and ensure that you’re sending the right messages to your tech candidates. Rather than subtracting, focus on combining values and culture in a meaningful way. Develop a recruiting strategy that fosters a shared understanding of the candidate and the company… without the beer.

With a redefined vision of culture, tech firms can function better, serve broader audiences, engage and attract tech talent with various backgrounds and perspectives, foster a culture of inclusiveness and belonging, and promote innovation with the help of diverse ideas, voices and directions.

Download Dice’s Diversity and Inclusion Reportto learn more about what you can do to be intentional about company culture to attract the best and brightest tech talent from every background.

Ryan Leary helps create the processes, ideas and innovation that drive RecruitingDaily. He’s RecruitingDaily’s in-house expert for anything related to sourcing, tools or technology. A lead generation and brand buzz building machine, he has built superior funnel systems for some of the industry’s top HR Tech and Recruitment brands. He is a veteran of the online community and a partner at RecruitingDaily.