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
Hseih 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?
Article continues on the next page: Is Cultural Fit Important Enough to Turn Away a Potential All-Star?