Should You Evaluate ‘Culture Fit’? Rethinking Culture Fit Assessments

September 5th, 2019
Nathan Mondragon, Chief IO Psychologist
Diversity & Inclusion

Can you help us assess for “culture fit”? is a question I receive on a weekly basis.

The real question companies should be asking is: Should we hire and assess for culture fit, and if so, how?

Many organizations believe they have a unique culture and the ability of new hires to “fit” within that culture directly impacts their job performance, job satisfaction, and retention. A clear advantage of culture fit assessments is their ability to scale across an entire applicant pool for the entire organization. But is culture fit - and the culture fit assessment - really the high-impact predictor of job success that it’s often assumed to be?

What Is Culture or Culture “Fit”?

Before discussing culture fit assessments we first need to understand culture. Then we can explore how culture fit can be used in terms of hiring or job placement.

Culture is probably one of the most commonly misused terms in the talent market. Culture is more than a list of company values, and culture is not a competence. And, as we’ll see, culture is definitely not what a hiring manager thinks they want in a new hire.

Now let’s discuss what culture is, specifically in relation to business.

Organizational culture is defined as the underlying beliefs, assumptions, values, and ways of interacting that contribute to the unique social and psychological environment of an organization. Simply stated, organizational culture is "the way things are done around here."

Organizational culture is an organizational-level concept, not an individual-level term. Knowledge, skills, abilities, competencies, personality, and traits are all examples of individual-level concepts and can be measured at the individual level. For example, communication skills, drive to succeed, and proficiency in Microsoft Excel are competencies that can be measured at the individual level.

Since culture is an organizational-level concept, it is hard to measure at the individual level. Defining any culture (e.g., country, race, political) with precise terms that describe the entire membership is difficult, and company culture is no exception. Even if leaders in HR have a solid grasp on their organization’s culture, it’s rare for that understanding to trickle down to the managers who ultimately make the hiring decisions.

What Do Culture Fit Assessments Really Measure?

Researchers have explained organizational culture in many ways, but when I have designed culture fit assessments I have found the easiest way to think about it is with "facets."

About 10 years ago I designed a culture fit assessment model using cultural facets. Based on a detailed review of the literature, past consulting work, and interviews with hundreds of various organizational leaders I came up with 38 facets that could be used to describe culture. Examples of these facets include Innovation, Risk Taking, Fair Policies, Hierarchical, and Diversity.

Additionally, Schein (1992), Deal and Kennedy (2000), and Kotter (1992) advanced the idea that organizations often have very differing cultures as well as subcultures. Thus, there may be subcultures that co-exist or conflict because each subculture is linked to a different management team or function.

So a culture fit assessment must be mapped to the essential cultural facets that exist within an organization, department, function, or region reflective of each potential subculture. When I designed culture fit assessments for a customer using the 38 facets described above we had to create a survey to determine the cultural facets that mapped to an organization (or subcultures) and then surveyed applicants to determine their fit with the same facets.

In our research, we found cultural fit could add some predictive power to turnover or tenure. These findings fit with other research that find true organization culture fit is linked to job satisfaction and indirectly linked to tenure. However, culture fit typically does not have a large impact on subsequent job performance. You need the individual-level areas of measurement (e.g., competencies) to predict job performance.

The Downsides of “Culture Fit”

I’ve established above that culture fit is difficult to measure, as it is an organizational-level concept that usually reflects the values of a company or manager. It isn’t the competency level of an employee or applicant. It is related to - but more than - the values of the organization, and includes the work environment employees must exist within. Finally, although employees that fit the culture or values of a company are usually more satisfied and stay longer with the company, it doesn’t mean they will be the top performing employees. In fact, it is very likely the exact opposite may occur.

The reason most organizations want to assess for culture fit is because they inappropriately associate culture fit with competencies. Or they believe the cultural values or facets I described above can be accurately measured at the individual level across the entire applicant pool or enterprise.

Additionally, culture fit is often a mask for manager fit: meaning managers get to select the applicant that fits their beliefs, rather than the competencies that will facilitate a quality of hire decision. For many hiring managers, it’s more of a gut feeling than a relevant measure.

The lack of specificity around what culture fit really means creates the perfect opportunity for bias to enter the hiring process, and the perfect excuse when bias influences a hiring decision. Rather than aligning a candidate’s values with those of the organization, culture fit becomes a cover for managers to hire people like themselves, and exclude those they wouldn’t want to “get a drink with.”

When this variety of improper culture fit plays a role in hiring decisions, workplace diversity - both demographic diversity and diversity of thought - can be negatively impacted.

Predictive Measure or Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?

As mentioned above, culture fit-based hiring fails to produce quality hires at an individual level. This may not be immediately obvious, because culture fit gives the illusion of increasing performance.

On close inspection, “culture fit” is more self-fulfilling than predictive. The same bias which drives many culture fit decisions - similarity bias - contributes to biased performance reviews where the employees who fit the “best” are rewarded. And, like magic, culture fit appears to drive increased performance.

In a related way, employees who “fit” are also likely to stick around longer. Since their values and beliefs (not their competence to perform the job) are so similar to the existing employee base, the workplace becomes like a social club. Unfortunately, while this environment is suitable for retaining complacent employees, it inhibits the organization’s ability to generate different, creative, and disruptive ideas.

Culture fit-based hiring tends to miss the forest for the trees. While measures at the individual level might appear to improve (for the reasons listed above), in many situations the organization suffers.

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What Does Science Say About Culture Fit Assessments?

Even the best-designed measures of culture fit like I described above have trouble greatly impacting job performance, and at best have a slight impact on retention.

Nevertheless, organizations still insist on wanting these measures because you can evaluate all applicants with the same test or assessment and you don’t need separate assessments for separate job families. Additionally, the culture fit test is much simpler and quicker than deploying a panel of interviewers to screen the finalists for all jobs.

So let’s compare how various assessment methods or pre-hire assessments perform when predicting job success. High quality pre-hire assessments provide an objective, predictive look at candidates in what is frequently a highly subjective process. Unfortunately, culture fit assessments do not stack up well against other pre-hire evaluation methods when it comes to predicting success on the job.

Screening Method Validity Coefficient (0.0 - 1.0)
Cognitive Ability Assessment 0.65
Structured Interview 0.58
Conscientiousness Assessment 0.46
Integrity Assessment 0.46
Work Sample Assessment 0.33
Situational Judgment Assessment 0.26
Culture Fit Assessment 0.13
Candidate Extroversion 0.09
Graphology (analysis of handwriting) 0.00

What you’re looking at here are validity coefficients: how well the screening method gives insight into a candidate’s future job success. The closer an assessment is to a validity coefficient of 1.0 (on a scale of 0.0 - 1.0), the better. For reference, any assessment with a validity coefficient above 0.35 is considered very useful.

Culture fit assessments show very low validity, or relevance to job performance, particularly in comparison to screening methods like structured interviews and cognitive ability assessments.

From a scientific standpoint, culture fit assessments are among the worst possible predictors of job success.

The numbers above come from Frank Schmidt’s meta analysis of studies on selection methods in The Validity and Utility of Selection Methods in Personnel Psychology. Of the 10+ common pre-hire assessment types evaluated, culture fit assessments show the lowest level of validity.

Culture Fit - Is it Worth the Risks?

Culture fit is a tempting evaluation measure because every organization believes they have a unique culture. The logic that successful employees “fit” with the culture is intuitive, particularly if HR is actively working to influence it. Unfortunately, the risks significantly outweigh the benefits.

At its worst, assessing for culture fit excludes diversity of thought, diversity of experience, and underrepresented groups. It provides an easy cover for bias. At its best, when culture fit is codified in a pre-hire assessment, those assessments show very low relevance to on-the-job success, and are the least predictive of any mainstream assessment type. Even when considering tenure prediction, other pre-hire assessments types can have just as big an impact while delivering quality of hire improvements at the same time.

If culture remains a consideration in the hiring process, evaluators should look at what candidates add to the culture, rather than if they “fit.”

Culture is built by the people who are a part of it. Whether or not someone “fits” is a deliberate choice, not an objective evaluation.

About the Author:

Dr. Nathan Mondragon is Chief IO Psychologist at HireVue and responsible for building, researching, and maintaining the AI-driven assessment product. Nathan has over 20 years of experience in the HCM space and is a recognized expert in the blending of IO Psychology tools with technology to deliver seamless integrated recruitment, hiring, and development solutions. In 1996, Nathan helped lead the creation and delivery of the first ever online selection assessment, in 2004 built from ground up the first integrated assessment solution within an enterprise-wide ATS (Taleo), and in 2015 as part of HireVue delivered the first ever AI-driven pre-hire assessment solution. Nathan received his Ph.D. in Industrial and Organizational Psychology from Colorado State University. Find him on LinkedIn.


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