Should You Really Hire for Cultural Fit over Competence?

Diana-Martz by

Entrepreneurs like Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh and venture capitalist Brad Feld have made the case that cultural fit trumps competence, but should you really turn away someone who is highly qualified if they are weak culturally?

As a recruiter, I’ve long been a proponent of the importance and value assessing cultural fit in the expansion-stage recruiting process. In fact, I think ensuring that candidates align with your company’s vision and values, management style, and workplace environment is critical to early-stage recruiting success.

That being said, I’ve been slightly surprised by just how far the pendulum seems to have swung in favor of cultural fit.

Take, for example, respected entrepreneur and investor Brad Feld’s recent assertion that companies – especially startups and growth-stage businesses – should value cultural fit over competence when building their early teams.

And then there’s the recent study published in the American Sociological Review by Northwestern professor Lauren Rivera that suggests an increasing number of companies are making hiring decisions that “more closely resemble the choice of friends or romantic partners.” As Bloomberg Businessweek’s Logan Hill writes, that trend is leading to job interviews that focus as much on whether a candidate prefers Stars Wars or Star Trek as they do his or her actual qualifications.

Is Cultural Fit Really That Important?

In fairness to Feld and other proponents, they do qualify their beliefs with an important point: always strive for candidates with both high cultural fit and high competence, but choose high cultural fit and medium competence when you have to make a choice, particularly at startups and growth-stage companies. The key is to strike a balance.

For instance, let’s say you’re considering hiring one of two candidates. Candidate A is slightly less qualified than Candidate B, but more closely shares your vision, values, and passion. According to Feld and Rivera, an argument could certainly be made for hiring Candidate A, even if his or her previous experience isn’t as ideal as Candidate B.

And, to an extent, I agree with that strategy.

An employee who is a strong cultural fit with your organization is more likely to work well with other successful employees, and to continue to build their skills with your company. On the other hand, an employee who fails to fit within your work environment is more likely to leave for another company that is more aligned with their own values.

Cultural fit is critical to expansion-stage recruitment success because it is essential to long-term employee engagement, productivity, and retention.

Feld and Rivera are certainly not alone in their belief that – all things being reasonably equal – cultural fit should trump competence.

For instance, venture capitalist and blogger Fred Wilson says cultural fit can be the difference between a startup succeeding or imploding. As Wilson writes in a post on his blog, growing companies all encounter roadblocks and obstacles at some point in their development. And if a company is full of mercenaries with no shared culture or values, the team will struggle to survive.

On the other hand, Wilson says that businesses with a meaningful culture that everyone buys into will, “stick together, double down, and get through those challenging situations.”

Just ask Zappos’ founder Tony Hseih.

The Zappos Approach

At Zappos Tony Hsieh stresses cultural fit, even over talentHseih and Zappos’ commitment to company culture is well-chronicled, but I think this video on Inc. beautifully sums up his approach. The Cliffs Notes version is that as Hseih was building Zappos, he wouldn’t hire stellar candidates if they didn’t align with the company’s culture. As for employees who refuse to inspire it? He fires them. In fact, Zappos even offers $4,000 to new hires who decide to quit after completing their employee training.

But is that an approach that could actually be effective elsewhere? Are the majority of hiring managers really comfortable with the idea of passing over superstars in favor of less talented candidates who feel like the right match?

Is an Emphasis on Cultural Fit Important Enough to Turn Away a Potential All-Star?

Sure, if a company has a choice of two candidates who are both very talented, but Candidate A seems to embrace the company’s mission and values more, I can absolutely see the company going with Candidate A.

But what about if Candidate B is a superstar whose skills and capabilities are head-and-shoulders above Candidate A? Is it still smart to turn Candidate B away, and make a hiring decision based solely on cultural fit?

By trading Justin Upton, the Diamondbacks stressed culture over talent.The Arizona Diamondbacks seem to think so.

As Yahoo’s Jeff Passan points out, the team made a decision last Thursday to trade star player Justin Upton, a wildly talented but mercurial outfielder, to the Atlanta Braves for a handful of lesser known players and prospects, stressing their belief in the impact of culture over talent. Time will tell if the Diamondbacks made the right decision, but it’s an interesting example of the value placed on cultural fit.

Last October, Eric C. Sinoway caused a stir with his article for the Harvard Business Review explaining why he made a similar move, firing an executive who had delivered strong results, but who Sinoway determined was a “cultural vampire.”

The Potential Downsides to Choosing Cultural Fit Over Talent

Giving preference to cultural fit over performance can certainly raise some concerning questions regarding bias and diversity – as Hill points out, “How do companies value diversity and cultural fit if hiring managers are often biased toward hiring people much like themselves?”

HR and talent acquisition expert Tim Sackett has a lot to say on the topic and explains the problem with always hiring “more people like us” is that “you don’t necessarily get better – you get more of the same.”

But Sackett also says we need to acknowledge that, to at least some extent, this is the way companies have always hired.

“It’s often easier to allow the hiring manager to make a decision – ‘Yeah, I think John will fit in” – passing over a possibly more talented applicant who simply didn’t connect with them as well in the interview,” Sackett says. “Companies do a lot to show they are hiring the best candidate for the job when the reality is, behind closed doors, 99% of the conversation amongst the decision makers is around cultural fit.

A Suggested Approach: Strike a Balance of Talent and Culture

Ultimately, it’s important for expansion-stage companies to find a happy medium between hiring candidates who possess top-tier talent and those who will truly mesh with — and even improve — your company’s culture.

So, instead of focusing on whether potential employees are going to conform to your company’s culture, focus instead on determining whether they are:

  • Likely to succeed when working with your employees
  • Will support or change your company’s values in a positive way

In addition, ensuring a strong cultural fit at an expansion-stage company also requires looking for people who are excited about tackling the challenges and adapting to the changes that often come with working for a rapidly growing business.

While factoring cultural fit into your hiring process is extremely important to long-term team-building success, make sure that it does not outweigh all other factors too heavily. When making decisions about candidates, listen to the voice that says “no” when a highly competent candidate has shown evidence they will not succeed culturally with your organization, and seriously consider the voice that says “yes” on taking a chance on a candidate who hasn’t done it all before, but has a solid skill set and is driven to learn and succeed.

In the end, you’ll find that a highly skilled employee who is not a cultural fit could be a huge detriment to your company, and a candidate who is not as highly skilled and is a great cultural fit could be your best hire.

Do you think cultural fit is more important than competence?

  • Great article! I agree it is difficult to find that balance of hiring for culture and competency. It is important to have a diverse organization, but when your company is in the critical expansion stage you must be certain you are hiring someone whose values align with the company vision.

  • Arvind Sahay

    The debate between Star or Confirm has been raging since ages. While top performers are required by any organization to get edge in the market place, lone rangers sadly do not have much of a place in today’s connected world. It is important for any organization to find the right balance in hiring people who perform and yet fits into the fabric of the system.

  • What is missing from the article is the importance that a valued and identified culture needs to exist prior to comparing candidates to it. Star Trek v Star Wars is not real/relevant culture (oh I have my obvious choice, too), but a “never-ending quest for improvement” or a “customer-first attitude” are examples of the sort of relevant cultural values that can make a company great.

    The “hire people like me” stuff is going to happen intentionally or not, but knowing the valuable cultural values has to be deliberate and consistent.

    • “Relevant” culture fit. That’s good. But determining what that is is another thing.

      If only more companies understood that successful hiring begins long before recruiting and assessment begins …it begins with the type of culture you are creating. It is no accident that companies that are attentive to this seem to do a better job at hiring …and even MORE importantly at retention!

    • Rob, you’re spot on. For companies who have not already defined and established their corporate culture, I’m putting the cart before the horse! What you mentioned in your recent company is all too common, and makes assessing candidates based on culture fit much less relevant. Ben Horowitz wrote a great blog on this –

  • jonathan briickman

    I very much agree and have lived through the lack of “fit” in a recent engagement.

  • But this “values and fit” thing is easy to fake in an interview. You look at the walls, peer in the cubes and read the clues. “Uh, yeah, I believe that the cat should really hang in there. Totally!” And seriously, who WOULD NOT say that they are “passionate,” “committed to excellence,” or “believe customers come first”? Is someone going to sit across from you, shrug their shoulders, and say they take a “meh” approach to service? That customers come second? Look, the real issue is corporate narcissism: do you really believe that your company, your culture, is THAT different from everyone else? Please. If you do, take a few moments to read the “About Us” pages of your competitors; you’ll find them shockingly familiar…

    • TNoebel

      I disagree. A well structured interview can, with a high degree of success, tease out those who attempt to fake the “values and fit” thing. Culture is not what companies say they’re about on their “About Us” page or even the values they post throughout their offices.
      It is how they live what they do – How they interact with one another and their clients on a day-to-day basis. I’ve worked in (and recruited for) organizations where the culture was genuine and where it was window dressing for the outside to see. Trust me, the difference is quite real.
      Could someone put up a good enough front to make it through the interview and selection process? Sure. But companies with genuine culture realize it quickly and make the decision to get rid of the con artist before they do damage internally or externally.

      And this isn’t about good vs. bad. Some cultures are genuinely tough, difficult places to be…and they like it that way. Not every company is trying to be warm and fuzzy. And that’s not the point. The point is to hire an individual who possesses suffificent skills and abilities AND who has the values/fit (their conduct and thinking) to function effectively within the culture.
      Failure to pay attention to that fit is frequently what leads to high turnover and poor performance.

      • I hope you’re right TNoebel, but from what I’ve seen, “culture” is more an artifact of rhetoric than reality. If you want to know what the culture is truly about, look at the incentives and rewards: what they are, who gets them, and why.

        • TNoebel

          Jonathan – compensation is only one aspect of culture. Yes, it can be a negative. Maybe I’ve just had the good fortune of working with organizations, both inside and as an external consultant, where the rhetoric about the culture stems from the reality. I’m not trying to be contentious (well, maybe a little) but rather trying to point out that there are organizatiosn where culture matters and it is an integral part of the recruiting process. I’ve seen it work a great dela more than I’ve seen it fail.

          • It’s not just compensation. It’s about who advances — and who does not. It’s about who has power and has access to power. In 2008, many companies with explicit ethical guidelines — an integral part of their “culture” — brought us all to the brink.

          • TNoebel

            Which means you agree with me. As I said, compensation is a part of culture – but only a part. With respect to the financial services companies you referenced, frankly if those ethical guidelines were truly an integral part of their culture the behavior you reference would not have been tolerated much less condoned.

            There are also many companies that did not behave as you suggest. But we’re getting far afield from the question of hiring for culture. I’m curious, are you in recruiting or HR at all?

          • I agree with you? I guess that’s open to interpretation. No, I’m not in HR; I just work with the people HR hires, the consequences of their efforts. I take it you’re an HR person?

          • TNoebel

            You agree in that a company culture can’t be defined (or understood) simply through words that are posted for window dressing. It’s about how the people in the company comport themselves.

            I’ve been in HR for over 20 years now, and with the exception of hiring other HR employees, HR is typically not the decision maker in who gets hired. This means that the individual hiring manager making the decision has substantial accountability in who gets hired. I also thing any participants in the interview process do as well.

            More importantly, every employee (you included) have ownership and accountability for the culture of a company. How you conduct your role impacts the culture. It’s disengenuous to say that culture is all about what “they” do and who “HR hires”. Which means the consequences of your efforts matter.

      • Well said!

  • marty

    In sales, the question of culture is most often raised when things don’t work out. It never comes up when they do work out. The relationship between sales and the rest of the company is nowhere near as important as the that betweens sales and the customer / prospect base. That is where success and failure will be determined, not between sales and engineering or administration . management etc.

  • John Hoskins

    Excellent question. Is it too one dimensional to ask one or the other? Hiring decisions are more complex and should be 4 dimensional. We suggest a weighted 30-30-30-10 formula. Can Do (skills) – Will Do (motivations) – Will Fit (culture) and that last 10% – Gut Feel (chemistry). If those are aligned and you increase the odds of hiring a winner. When we query people about turnover they often say, “We hired them for who we thought they were, we fired them for what they couldn’t do.”

  • skyman123

    I think there’s a point missing here. If I’ve decided on a list of candidates to interview, I’ve done it because I think that what I have in front of me all look qualified on paper. I’m trying to differentiate them in the inteview process because they all appear to be about the same for one reason or another. Or perhaps I’m intrigued by a set of qualifications I hadn’t considered. But they are all coming in because, at this point, the field is level.

    So now there’s a coule of points that come into play in person. Personality, poise, general demeanor, ability to think on one’s feet, attention to detail (yes, I’m looking at the way you dressed), and further professional questioning. At this time some will stand out and there’s no going around the personality issue becuase, when you say “cultual fit” (let’s be honest and call it what it is) you’re talking about personality. So you have my “if I were trapped with this person in an airport for 4 hours, would I enjoy myself or want to hang myself in the men’s room?” test. Do I think this person is a “fit” is asking whether I believe this person’s personality will work. As long as you’re not answering “yes” to that question because you’re looking for someone who’ll agree with you, it’s a big part of why you hire someone. If you’re hiring someone because you don’t want to hear bad news or be disagreed with (and how many people are self-aware enough to answer this question truthfully?) then it’s a disaster both for the candidate and the person doing the hiring.

    Of course this differs slightly when talking about the level you’re hiring for too. Lower level employees are probably even more likely to be hired on the “team player” attribute because who wants to manage disagreeable people? Who wants them talking to customers if they’re not customer focused by nature and fit in with the ethos of the department they’re being hired into? But the second this devolves into hiring “yes” people, that’s when the disaster occurs. So I think this discussion is perhaps a bit more nuanced.

    • Excellent points. Culture fit is about personality fit to a large extent but this doesn’t (shouldn’t) necessarily mean personality clones. Different personalities can work very well together. Shared mission and values are even more powerful determinants, especially in a group emotionally mature enough to value diversity of thought and approach.

      You mentioned self-awareness in a hiring manager and I think that hands down this is one of the most critical factors in successful hiring.

      • Donna, great point. I think too often people confuse the concepts of “cultural fit” and “people like me.” Sometimes the best cultural fits are people who have shared mission and values, but contrasting ideas and methodologies. Rather than finding people who would do exactly what you would do and make the same decisions you would make, I’d want someone to challenge the status quo while sharing the underlying mission and values. That would drive constructive disagreements and avoid either groupthink or heavy conflict.

        • Great points! There is a certainly lot more to this topic than I covered in this article.

          Donna and Avin, I agree. Although I don’t think I covered it enough here– cultural fit does not mean everyone should think or act the same way. Diversity in teams and in companies is essential for their success! To your points, it’s the underlying mission and values that need to be aligned.

      • Meghan Maher

        Donna, I completely agree. Culture fit could even be the opposite of “people like me.” I have worked with companies that look for people with different opinions and different backgrounds to “stir the pot”. There are also companies that don’t even want people coming from the same industry because they would rather have new hires coming in with fresh eyes and new ideas. I think the key to growth is often healthy conflict and different opinions but with a shared vision.

      • Excellent points. It’s oftentimes better for a team to have diverse personalities. Actually I came across an article recently on Inc – “Why You Should Work With Someone You Hate” (, that explores how personality clashes can sometimes create better work.

        Obviously, that’s an extreme – but cultural fit should not be about whether YOU get along with a candidate, and would be friends with them – but rather are they a fit for your company.

        It’s also important to convey this in the interview process. It’s normal to ask things like, “Tell me more about yourself”, or “What are your hobbies?” However, steer clear of getting into any legal trouble by asking illegal questions like, “Do you play sports?” (that’s actually an illegal question to ask!)

        • there is technically no such thing as an illegal question. but there are reasons that are illegal to make decision based on. so it’s safer not to ask questions that could give you that information because then you’d have to prove that you didn’t consider those when making a decision if you get challenged, eg. sued.

  • For us its by far the most important thing. I can teach you how to do everything else. If you don’t fit with the way we work and the values we have an as organization, not only are you not going to excel – but you will bring the rest of us down. Nothing is more important than the team knowing they can implicitly trust everyone on it. If I need a mercenary for some miracle task, bring ’em in as a freelancer/consultant and cut them loose when it’s done.

  • I believe it depends on factors such as the level and type of position, the emotional maturity base and the skill of the company’s leadership. For those newer to management roles it is easier to manage teams that are more naturally cohesive whereas a more seasoned manager/leader can create cohesiveness among a more diverse group.

    But when culture fit is more about shared vision, passions and values, then this wins out in the long run. You can go a long way with a bright, committed team that loves working together.

  • We look at four criteria in this order: 1 Culture 2. Skills 3. Geo 4. Matrix. We don’t compromise on 1 or 2, but we are flexible on 3 and 4. (Matrix is title, salary, equity) If someone has unique, needed skills, but is not a cultural fit, then we may contract with them, but not hire them.

    • Jim, thanks for sharing that sequence. We hadn’t defined it, but it really fits the way we hire.

    • Misti Burmeister

      What does “hiring for culture” mean to you, Jim? Thank you!

  • Tom Anderson

    Culture matters but should not matter more then the proven ability to do the job. Diversity has many faces and flavors and has proven to enrich corporate America. Diverse corporate culture enriched as well.

  • T. C. Browne

    The OpenView Labs survey shows an almost 2:1 predisposition to hire for cultural fit versus skills and experience. This tilt toward cultural fit could easily be misinterpreted as “hire for cultural fit first, as long as the person has adequate skills and experience.”

    What you’ll get is a symbiotic group with mediocre performance.

    A better interpretation is “hire for skills and experience first, as long as the person will fit the culture.” In math terms, this translates to “focus on the objective but satisfy the constraint.”
    You’ll get a team that will challenge each other to perform at a high level while sticking together to win!

  • Carlie Smith

    Great question that always seems to be up for debate! I agree that the key is to strike a balance, and that cultural fit and retention go hand-in-hand. Hiring someone with top skills who is not a cultural fit can lead to turnover of that employee and/or employees that may work with her/him. This is costly in terms of many resources, most significantly time and money.

  • Awesome Diana! 😀

    Culture fit should be first, followed by appitude and only after the first two have been satisfied should resume be considered. It doesn’t matter how much of an A player someone is… If they make others not want to come to work, its only a matter of time until your company is a crappy one. Most people only do the job they are hired for, for a very short period. Hire people that are agile and good at learning… chances are you’ll want them doing something different very soon. 😀

    • Misti Burmeister

      How do you stay away from hiring people who are just like you… those who don’t challenge you because they’re too much like you?

  • George Begemann

    I am very much in favor of selecting on both fit and competence. But if given the choice of slightly less ‘competent’ and a better cultural fit, my preference is for the latter. In my eBook about Successful Partnerships I spend a significant part on fit and finding the right match. This match is a cultural aspect of the partnership. Want to read the eBook? let me know and I’ll send you a copy. [email protected]

  • Jim Sargent

    I agree with a large portion of this writing although the term “Cultural fit” has been used to discriminate as much as build a team. I believe if you hire professionals they will work together but how manipulate the term “Cultural fit” can be hurtful to some candidates. It is important that we don’t hire obnoxiously outspoken or offensive people but generally speaking in this American melting pot of a workforce, what exactly is a cultural fit? you mean the guy from Ohio and the guy from Texas can’t work in the cubicle space? Or the San Fransisco team can’t work in the Salt Lake City office building for a week? I take many things into account when hiring but I can honestly say it usually revolves around the persons ability to do the job. If they are friendly and communicate in a positive manner, relevant experience, etc… I expect my people to be accepting of new employees and the culture they bring with them. With that said I agree with Skyman123 I may ask myself if I had to spend 4 hrs in an airplane with this person would I survive? That might sway me. But on the other hand I have spent 12 hrs flying around the globe with complete strangers so who cares?

  • Salima Ladha

    Great insights! More often than not, skills and competencies can be enhanced in the workplace through sound training and development programs. Whereas “cultural fit” such as values, personality and the ability to get along with others are difficult to teach but critical for establishing a cohesive and cooperative work environment. At the end of the day, if you encounter a candidate that has the technical competency required for the role but does not appear to be a cultural fit, test their willingness and ability to embrace the culture through behavioral interviews or pre-interview socials and hopefully you should have your answer.

  • I fall on the
    side of culture. If you put on a shoe that is too small for your foot but you
    love the way it looks how long it will be before you just can’t put the shoes
    on again.

    I believe that a
    great culture will make you highly profitable. I could write a few pages on
    this but why. An average person who fits your culture is worth two…well one
    person who wreaks havoc with your culture will ultimately destroy your team and
    eventually your profits.

    Last life is
    about helping others grow and fulfill their potential. When that is your focus
    you will be rewarded. If profit is your only focus, well good luck. These
    people aren’t liked and are not respected. You might not need to be liked to be
    successful but at the very least you have to be respected.

  • tpiuowr

    I think the more grace/acceptance and unconditional love, the better the atmosphere. I’ve seen team cultures that swore a lot, were highly judgmental but don’t realize it, cynical attitudes, and yet management still felt the solution to their success was “cultural fit”. Snap judgments are usually not a reliable method, you just don’t see the cracks until pressure is applied.

  • tpiuowr

    I hate the term “cultural fit”. Its too subjective. I think the most you can require is a positive attitude and and a kind heart. I volunteer a lot, I can’t imagine rejecting people based on how they “fit in” with the group. Seems very regressive. I’ve read about the one or two corporate success stories that hired based on “cultural fit”, and now apparently that’s magic bullet, the key to success. Wow, when you think of banking your model of success on human perception, when most people tend to carry around some relational dumb ideas and not even realize it, just doesn’t seem like a very sound plan.

  • Airis Damon

    I am thinking of the Peter Principle, except in reverse. Who cares if the person can do the job or, hell, even needs a job. Let’s just hire people who fit into our little social clique like back in high school and reward them for doing stupid, incompetent things which make the national news. Tanking the economy with predatory loans sounds like a good start. This is just a prudent joke, in case one does not get the context. Context is hard to get from reading text alone.

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