What IT Candidates May Be Missing About “Culture Fit”

“Culture fit” can seem like a nebulous concept, but it has some tangible meaning for IT candidates.

There are few judgments that seem more criticizing to candidates than hearing they’re not a good “culture fit.” And depending on the context, the phrase not only sounds ambiguous and fishy, but also arbitrary and subjective.

So What Exactly Does “Culture Fit” Mean?

A colleague who read my recent post on behavioral interview questions posed this very question. I had cited findings that identified “poor culture fit” as the cause of approximately 90% of all hiring failures. I had also mentioned techniques used by employers to measure culture fit, leading one reader to comment:

“…What exactly is meant by culture fit? What is the real meaning behind that statement? Is a person too old, too aggressive, too passive, doesn’t seem like a team player etc….and how can an interviewer come to that conclusion?”

It’s a great question and one that reflects a very real concern among both IT candidates and employers.

What is Culture Fit—Really?

While the term is often used as a catchall and euphemism for excluding certain kinds of candidates, it shouldn’t discredit the whole concept entirely.

One valuable perspective appeared last year in the Harvard Business Review. And no, it wasn’t written by some lofty academic. The author is Katie Bouton, the president of a national search firm, and someone with over 20 years’ experience in the field.

The article begins with what appears to be a pretty benign statement: “Culture fit is the glue that holds an organization together.” But then Bouton makes another point just as emphatically:

“It’s important to understand that culture fit doesn’t mean hiring people who are all the same. The values and attributes that make up an organizational culture can and should be reflected in a richly diverse workforce.”

So is there a contradiction here?

Culture—and Culture Fit—Isn’t Created in a Vacuum

In my experience there isn’t a contradiction between these statements—and here’s why.

What I think frequently gets overlooked about culture fit are the origins and evolution of that “culture” itself. Culture isn’t something that companies, organizations, departments, or groups concoct or control on their own. A good deal of what contributes to “culture” is imposed externally.

What do I mean by that?

Again, in my experience, when employers start probing into “culture fit” territory it’s with an eye toward their own clients—whether internal or external—namely, the people who have a huge impact in shaping their “culture.”

Obviously this can vary from company to company and assignment to assignment, but there are some recurring themes: Work ethic—”We have such demanding end-users” is a refrain I hear constantly. There’s an unmistakable recognition that dealing successfully with those demanding end-users is often exasperating—and can test a candidate’s commitment and dedication to seeing a job through.

Patience is another area of concern. Dealing with end-users, which is likely not news to you, frequently requires a good amount of patience, diplomacy, and finesse.

For me, this helps resolve any apparent contradiction. How so?

How Exactly Is Culture Framed?

I recently read something that really helped crystallize the prevailing attitude toward culture fit:

“The biggest problem is that while we invoke culture fit as a reason to hire someone, it is far more common to use it to not hire someone.”

Then it hit me. When it comes to an aspect of “fit,” how positively is the question or concern being framed? Is it looking to exclude or could it be framed to include? If approached through this lens, candidates can more positively present the kind of relevant skills, characteristics, and traits that can really make for a genuine fit.

That mindset obviously isn’t a perfect solution for dealing with all the prejudices related to “poor cultural fit.”  On the other hand, I think it might be good way for all of us to try to make some practical sense of what can otherwise seem like a slippery concept.

That’s one advantage I think we in the IT sector have when it comes to culture. This may sound self-serving, but there are many circumstances unique to our industry—relentlessly demanding end-users, the high premium placed on technical skills, the huge time, effort, and expense of replacing bad hires—which really force us to be more pragmatic in this area, to really focus on the important skills; in other words, to frame the “fit” question precisely in these positive terms.

Some Closing Thoughts on Being “Fit”

That being said, there are a number of ways candidates can still stack the deck in their favor when it comes to culture fit.

Here are a couple of points I think any discussion of this subject should highlight:

  • “Fit” isn’t going away. Most enlightened employers (and recruiters) recruit and even test for it. Zappos, for instance, conducts two separate interviews, one aimed at assessing skills, the other at measuring culture fit.
  • Recognize that there are practical steps you can take not only to bridge the cultural gap but also to get a real feel for what a company’s culture is. Research, informational interviews, networking, and candidly discussing with your recruiter—are all essential tools and ones that are crucial to assessing a potential employer’s culture.
  • Finally, fit depends on individual identity—so make sure yours comes though. It’s critical that you be able to use “I”—as opposed to “we”—when talking about yourself, and that you illustrate how “I accomplished/handled/approached this” rather than “we accomplished/handled/approach this.” Too many candidates retreat behind “we” and it often obscures an individual’s true soft skills which are the fundamental skills that define a true culture fit.

As always, I look forward to hearing any and all comments or questions from you.

In the meantime check out these valuable links:
“Valuable Perspective”
“Crystallize My Attitude Toward Culture Fit”
“Practical Steps”