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December 6, 2016

Cindy Penchina, President

The Importance of Cultural Fit

Ultimately, everyone in an office needs to get along. And as much as personalities differ – bubbly or morose, serious and studious or flightly and distractable – an office needs to have an essential set of values and priorities that everyone can adhere to in order to operate as a smooth, functional unit. And once those values and priorities (essentially a company’s personality) is in place, employees are either going to be on board with it or they won’t.

The fact is that we spend a large amount of time at work, and in order to thrive, we need to be in environments that encourage us to thrive. For some of us, it’s head down, nose to the grindstone, and for others, it’s an easy atmosphere and a foosball table. These factors, when an employee meshes well with them, promote strong job performance and satisfaction. But when the dude in the Hawaiian shirt and beat-up sneakers has to take a job in a sea of grey flannel suits, there’s going to be a problem.

Cultural fit matters.

The Glue That Holds a Company Together

At least, it is according to the Harvard Business Review. Cultural fit, loosely defined, is how likely an employee will reflect or at least be able to adapt to your company’s core values and beliefs. Turnover due to bad cultural fit can cost an organization as it has to hire and re-hire repeatedly for the same position; it can mean the difference between a qualified new hire being happy and productive, and a qualified new hire bolting at the first outside job offer.

But fit isn’t just saying that a new hire is just like the rest of your team. They don’t have to like the same shows or have the same hobbies in order to work out. What we’re talking about is corporate values and how those extend to the day-to-day. A company that really values people who pull constant all-nighters and drive themselves to exhaustion is going to do well to find people who naturally push themselves to the same extent, while at a more relaxed office, such individuals may discover their colleagues consider their behavior worrisome, or even threatening.

Context means everything. But you can’t hire for cultural fit if you don’t have a good idea as to what your culture is. It can include lots of different elements: the team goes out for drinks on Friday nights; the company has a flat organization structure without clear hierarchies; management encourages team members to set their own priorities; the team uses specific task management systems in particular ways which the new hire will be expected to follow.

None of the above examples veer into “we all supported Bernie Sanders in the primaries” or “Game of Thrones is a big deal here” territory. Instead, we’re focusing on how the office operates and how the team interrelates. People who thrive in your kind of setting will do well there; those who don’t….won’t.

Defining Your Culture

That means that, in order to recruit appropriately, you need to zero in on what really defines your company’s culture. And it’s not just “we’re really chill here.” It’s a larger issue of how you operate and how you expect people to operate.

Here are some basic questions I’ve found helpful in determining both our own corporate culture and helping clients’ define theirs.

  • Do we focus on collaborative or individual work?

A key differentiator that a lot of offices kind of take for granted, and for which the answer might not always be clear. But it’s important to be able to define this quality. If you expect your team to operate in a very open, collaborative way as opposed to siloed nose-to-the-grindstone work, you’d do well to understand that about yourselves explicitly. Team members that value their independence and thrive when allowed large stretches of uninterrupted time may not mesh well with a team that focuses on frequent, flexible collaborative interactions.

  • Are we outcome-driven or process-driven?

This question affects how you define productivity; is what matters the simple execution of the task, or are there specific ways in which the work needs to get accomplished, such as utilizing organizational or task-management software to coordinate with the rest of the company? Many workers take a simple “get it done” attitude and chafe at stringent process requirements, while others find these structures to be empowering tools that strengthen their work.

  • Do we expect or allow employee autonomy?

To what extent do your team members set their own priorities? In flat or non-hierarchical organizational structures, the answer is very often “almost entirely.” Some people value high levels of trust and independence, finding that in these circumstances they are really given free rein to accomplish their goals to the best of their ability; others, however, may find themselves paralyzed with indecision without clear organizational direction.

  • What work-life balance do we expect?

Should your team members expect to spend a lot of evenings at the office? Many companies still encourage high-energy, highly competitive environments where driven go-getters work through all hours of the night – while those who don’t are quick to be fired. Even if the situation isn’t quite that extreme, it’s important to make sure you understand and can clearly communicate whether or not you expect work to always come first.

Articulating these answers helps you identify key areas of differentiation with other companies, which means you can clearly define what your company is trying to be and who would thrive there. It’s a simple exercise that can save you a great deal of money, stress, frustration, and heartache – both for you and for the bad-fit hires you might otherwise let through the door.

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