What's the Difference Between "Culture Fit" and "Job Fit?"

By Emily Lambert

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At #movethedial Summit in Toronto this year, Molly Q Ford, Senior Director of Global Equality Programs at Salesforce, said, “Culture fit is the new racism. Forget that word. It should be culture add-on.”

Let’s be honest  when you’re hiring a new person, or bringing an existing employee from another team or department onto your team, you’re always trying to get a sense of that culture “X factor.” Will this individual smoothly integrate into this team/organization? Will the team dynamic be seamless or awkward? Will I like working with this person? In other words, we try and gauge “culture fit.”

We all do it, and we can pretty easily justify it. After all, bringing on a new hire is a process that is already taking up a lot of managerial time; isn’t it just more efficient to hire someone who can hit the ground running from a team cohesion perspective? Isn’t it just better for overall team morale to hire someone that everyone likes?

But there has been a lot of push-back recently on the idea of hiring for “culture fit.” Let’s dig into the controversy, and why you might want to step away from the use of the term “culture fit,” and use “job fit” instead.

The dangers of “culture fit”

Facebook has prohibited interviewers from using the term “culture fit” as a blanket term when providing feedback on what they liked or disliked about a candidate. Instead, interviewers are required to provide specific feedback that supports their position.

Once, “culture fit” was a revolutionary idea, and was praised as a competitive advantage for many organizations, especially in the tech industry. However, the term has taken on a sort of exclusionary definition over the years, as highlighted by the Facebook example. Interviewers were using the term arbitrarily, to consciously or unconsciously select people whose personalities and backgrounds maintained the status quo. In other words, the term “culture fit” was being used to mean “just like us.”

"Culture fit" can also mean "just like us." 

The danger of a “just like us” mindset in the interview process is that it perpetuates bias and stifles diversity. Confirmation bias occurs when interviewers make unconscious judgements about a candidate’s suitability for the role within the first seconds of interaction, and then spend the rest of the interview seeking information to confirm this first impression. These biases can be triggered by a variety of factors, including their gender, race, what they’re wearing, their mannerisms, their level of extraversion, and more.

When interviewers and hiring managers see the candidate only through this lens of initial biases, they gather proof to confirm why the do or do not like the candidate. The outcome of this confirmation bias can too easily be “Well, they just weren’t a great culture fit.” That’s probably why Salesforce’s Molly Q. Ford refers to “culture fit” as the new racism, as racial bias can certainly be a contributing factor.

Facebook recognized this, which is why they require their interviewers to more clearly tie their answers to Facebook’s core, objective cultural values, rather than using the term “culture fit” as arbitrary criteria.

The introduction of “culture add”

Many organizations, such as Salesforce and Pandora, are recognizing the dangers of “culture fit”, and are switching to language of “culture adds,” “culture add-ons,” “culture additions,” etc. This shift exemplifies the collective lightbulb turning on, as organizations increasingly recognize that diversity is critical to business success in a global market (after all, McKinsey found that organizations in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns than their competitors). Thus, organziations should be considering candidates from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives.

Organizations that have made this shift from “culture fit” to “culture add” tend to be a lot more future-focused, too. After all, “culture fit” connotes hiring talent to fit the status quo in other words, the same old, same old. “Culture add,” on the other hand, suggests that there is a future-oriented organizational culture in mind, and the goal is to hire and deploy talent that will not keep the company where it’s at, but drive the company to where it needs to be.

"Culture add" suggests that there is a future-oriented organizational culture in mind, and the goal is to hire and deploy talent that will not keep the company where it's at, but drive the company to where it needs to be.

For example, if the company goal is to be more innovative, that would require the company to place talent that is innovative into roles. If the company goal is to be more inclusive, that would require the company to place talent that embraces diversity into roles.

We’re definitely on-board the culture add train; after all, talents like innovation and embracing diversity are what we measure here at Plum. But we believe it’s a matter of going one step beyond “culture add;” after all, someone might be a great culture addition to your team, but if they aren’t a good fit in their role, what’s the point? That’s why we argue to use the term “job fit.”

A case for “job fit” and talent competency models

“Job fit” simply refers to using reliable selection methods to make hiring, promotion, succession planning, and other talent mobility decisions in order to accurately predict if an individual will have the skills, knowledge, and talents (i.e., the competencies) to succeed and engage in the role. In other words, if they will be the right person for the right seat.

Whereas “culture add” applies across the organization, “job fit” is job-specific. “Job fit” does not negate the benefits of “culture add;” rather, it builds on top of “culture add” to address job requirements and business needs.

Competency models are a great way to measure job fit while also accounting for organizational culture. A competency model is a set of the competencies required for good performance on the job. A talent-based competency model (as opposed to a skill-based model) is especially key to incorporating cultural values when assessing an individual’s fit for a role. Whereas skills refer to a specific set of learned activities required for the job (e.g., mopping, brain surgery), talents are recurring patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior. Talents include innovation, persuasion, teamwork, adaptation, communication, and so on.

Talents can describe culture a lot better than skills, too. After all, you wouldn’t say you wanted a culture of brain surgeons or chartered accountants, but you would say you wanted a culture of innovation, teamwork, and communication. Talent-based competency models can include job-specific and culture-specific talents; skill-based competency models are job-restrictive, because they are tailored to the specific needs of the job.

We addressed earlier that organizations that use “culture add” over “culture fit” tend to be more future-focused. Talent-based competency models that quantify job fit also fulfill this need to prepare for the future. Whereas skill-based competency models focus on the status quo of current employees, and are connected to immediate job needs and activities, talent-based competency models consider the future needs of the job, and are connected to the values and long-term goals of the organization.

Talent-based competency models consider the future needs of the job, and are connected to the values and long-term goals of the organization.

“Job fit,” quantified by competency models, addresses both the need for “culture adds,” as well as ensuring that every individual who contributes to organizational culture is also contributing to other business needs by operating with excellence in their specific role. Not to mention, when an individual feels engaged in their company culture and is thriving in their job-specific requirements, that individual is much more likely to love coming to work and therefore, provide long-term value to the organization as an engaged employee. That’s why we’re all about job fit here at Plum. If you want to start quantifying job fit for yourself, read our blog posts on implementing talent-based competency models in your organization.

Special thanks to the I/O Psychology Masters Students at Central Michigan University who contributed to this blog post!