The phrase “culture fit” is a bit of an Inkblot test in the world of work—even when we all hear the same two words, we might be thinking entirely different things.

There are countless filters and interpretations of the phrase—and a growing amount of interest in figuring out just what it means.

When the phrase “culture fit” is thoughtfully and deliberately applied, it can mean a gauge for your company’s essential values. At other companies, it might simply mean, “Is this a person with whom you want to have a beer after work?”

Wondering where that leaves people who don’t drink, people who don’t like beer or people who have after-work responsibilities like kids? Then you’re asking some great questions.

Culture fit can be an exclusive term, perhaps even a new way to discriminate without even realizing we’re doing it.

“It is an incredibly vague term, and it’s a vague term often based on gut instinct,” says Wharton management professor Katherine Klein. “The biggest problem is that while we invoke cultural fit as a reason to hire someone, it is far more common to use it to not hire someone. People can’t tell you what aspect of the culture they are worried about.

The challenges of ‘culture fit’

There are often good reasons to look for teammates who will “fit in”—they might feel more comfortable, they could be happier and more engaged, they might stay in the role longer.

The challenge is, we don’t know how to measure or define a culture fit.

Even though culture fit is incredibly tough to define, most of us seem to think it’s important.

In a survey by Cubiks on job and culture fit, 82 percent of those asked said they believed measuring cultural fit was an important part of the recruitment process. But only 54 percent said that their organization has a clearly defined culture.

That means many of us are trying to measure potential newcomers to a company according to a broken scale that we wouldn’t even know how to use on ourselves. Here are some of the ways the Cubiks study participants try to measure culture fit:

 

measure culture fit

…so we come up with our own flawed ‘metrics’

Without a real scale, things like gut feeling and the “airport test” (aka, “Would I want to be stuck at an airport with this person?”) are able to gain prominence to test cultural fit, even though they’re far from scientific and can introduce tons of bias.

When Lauren Rivera interviewed 120 decision makers at top U.S. investment banks, management consultancies and law firms about their recruiting practices, she learned that “shared experiences” was one of the biggest factors those hiring were using to check culture fit.

“Shared experiences was one of the most powerful sources of chemistry, but interviewers were primarily interested in new hires whose hobbies, hometowns and biographies matched their own. Bonding over rowing college crew, getting certified in scuba, sipping single-malt Scotches in the Highlands or dining at Michelin-starred restaurants was evidence of fit; sharing a love of teamwork or a passion for pleasing clients was not. Some (former) athletes fit exclusively with other athletes; others fit only with those who played the same sport. At one hiring committee meeting I attended, I watched a partner who was an avid Red Sox fan argue for rejecting a Yankees supporter on the grounds of misfit.”

When we use these kinds of methods—gut feeling, the “airport test,” or looking for shared experiences, we run the risk of creating a culture in which everyone is similar. In the best-case scenario, this leads to a lack of creativity and stunts a company’s problem-solving capacity. In the worst-case scenario, it creates a faulty feedback loop that fulfills existing prejudices.

Back to the Cubiks study: Although a significant number of respondents said their organization doesn’t have a definition of its culture or methods in place to measure how individuals fit with it, 59 percent said they have rejected a candidate because they lacked cultural fit.

Two new phrases we’re trying instead

While we’re phasing the idea of “culture fit” out of Buffer, we still need a common language to express how a teammate works within our values and what they bring to our organization. There are two specific terms that feel like a better fit for us right now—we’re learning that they’re particularly powerful when used together.

Cultural contribution: What do you add?

One of the most resonant articles I’ve read about the importance of diversity in building a team is Hiring: It’s About Cultural Contribution, Not Cultural Fit by Diego Rodriguez of IDEO.

contribution vs. fit

In the post, Rodriguez explains why he chooses candidates not because they fit in today but because they could make a positive contribution to the future of his company’s culture.

“I don’t optimize for fit with our existing culture, because over time that will lead to uniformity and irrelevancy. Instead, I try to envision a future where this person’s unique point of view has shifted how we work and what we value. I hire for an individual’s potential cultural contribution.”

This wording tweak seems to a ripe area for improvement. Jeff Vijungco, VP Employee Experience at Adobe, calls it a “culture complement.” Pandora employs a similar phrasing, focusing on “cultural add.”

We believe that ‘culture add’ goes beyond recruiting,” Pandora’s Director of Employee Experience & Marketing, Marta Riggins, told Forbes. “It’s about creating an integrated B2E (business to employee) marketing strategy to engage and attract great talent from all communities and backgrounds, develop programs to uncover and overcome bias, and fostering a culture of inclusiveness and belonging.”

Prioritizing cultural contribution over present-day fit is an exciting shift! Asking, as Rodriguez suggests, questions like “What’s lacking?” and “Where do we want to go?” opens up honest conversations about gaps in culture.

At Buffer, this has allowed us to name aspects of our culture that aren’t where we would like them to be, and then strive to improve on those areas. We ask questions like:

  • Does this person offer a dimension that our culture might be missing?
  • In what ways might this person challenge our thinking and processes?
  • Will this person bring a viewpoint or context we may be missing?

Ideally, we’re always asking what perspectives we’re lacking as we make a decision or build a product. We also ask how we can make Buffer a better place to work for parents, LGBT teammates, those with disabilities, those for whom English is not their first language, and other aspects of identity. Working towards improving Buffer’s culture where we’re lacking is a strategic decision and one that feels positive to us.

Values fit: Are you aligned with specific values?

Bringing in diverse viewpoints is great, but without any common ground to unite teammates, we could end up with a lot of division and inclusion challenges.

That’s where the other phrase getting a lot of play at Buffer comes in. “Values fit” is a slight but meaningful iteration on culture fit that came to us via Aubrey Blanche of Atlassian.

“Shifting our focus from ‘culture fit’ to ‘values fit’ helps us hire people who share our goals, not necessarily our viewpoints or backgrounds,” Blanche explained to Fast Company in 2016.

Making this shift led to improved diversity among more teams at Atlassian. For us at Buffer, it has provided us with a way to stay true to our values and united in the core beliefs that make Buffer the company that we know and love, while also leaving plenty of room for bringing your authentic self to work, including all the perspectives and experiences that make you unique.

We don’t all have to have the same background, life experiences or abilities to focus on the values that guide our work.

We try to be specific about how we measure values fit, too. We ask specific, deliberate interview questions (the same ones, in the same order, for every candidate) designed to speak to each of our core values, and everyone who interviews at Buffer knows how to test a good, not-so-good or just OK answer for every question.

It’s quite encouraging to see this phrase inching up in popularity over time–it might even be primed to take over “culture fit,” which would be a positive change in my mind.

I’m not convinced “values fit” is a 100% bias-free framework to evaluate potential teammates, but when we combine it with the concept of cultural contribution, it feels like a healthy step forward.

Over to you!

Like many elements of Buffer, our vocabulary around culture and “culture fit” is constantly evolving, and I imagine it will continue to do so. We learn so much from our community, so I’d love to hear from you if you have thoughts on this topic.

How does the phrase “culture fit” feel to you? Do you use it or another phrase?

Tell us all about in the comments!

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Written by Courtney Seiter

Courtney writes about social media, diversity and workplace culture at Buffer. She runs Girls to the Moon on the side and pets every dog she sees.

  • Jimmie

    I’ll start by saying that I’ve been given the “culture fit” cold shoulder a time or three before, and there’s still a little rawness about that. I promise I’ll try hard to take that into account! :)

    IME, when someone tells me I don’t fit their culture, they’re doing in the corporate world what the cool kids did in school when they told me I wasn’t cool enough to sit at their table. The decision generally isn’t made with a wealth of information — that is, those making the decision don’t know whether I can be a part of their corporate culture because they really don’t know me. They’ve not asked my previous supervisors or co-workers or friends about me. They made a snap judgement based on what I look like, where I come from, where I was or was not educated, or what jobs I’ve held before. They see me walking up all eager and hopeful with my lunch tray and they say “nope”. The pity is, the folks who get shunned from the cool table never do find out exactly why. Maybe there was a very good reason, but the hopeful rarely ever gets useful feedback. That leads to a mental frame that says you will never be cool enough to do good and useful work because you’ll never get to be part of the good and useful teams. After a while, it’s easy to simply give up.

    I can’t imagine that leads to good outcomes for the applicant or the company. Perhaps it does. I’ve been wrong before, plenty! :D

    • Thanks so much for sharing these thoughts, Jimmie! I totally agree with your assessment of culture fit, especially about basing it on relatively little information, which leads to snap judgments. I’m so sorry you’ve had this experience. :(

      • Jimmie

        Thank you, Courtney. :)

        It happens all the time, whether we want to or not. We look for certain personalities or appearances or backgrounds to fill our various circles — social, professional, personal — all the time. It is discouraging to be on the outside of a rejection, but it helps greatly to know that the rejection isn’t because of skills but something else. It would be nice, though, if teams would consider a “why not get to know me?” plea sometimes. It could be fun! People can surprise you pleasantly! :D

  • Hi Courtney, as always, I’m fascinated by the evolving approaches to organization-building you folks put on display for the world to learn from! On this one, I think you’re on track with focusing more on questions about what gaps each new person might fill. I also think you’re right to be wary of the modified term “values fit” – perhaps even of any phrase with the word “fit” if that connotes sameness.

    When that last thought entered my brain, it next occurred to me that you could also view “fit” more like adding pieces to a jigsaw puzzle, oddly shaped, but adding to the overall picture. I’m not happy with that metaphor, however, since it implies to me that there’s a pre-ordained whole picture of your organization that you just need to fill in and be done. I love working puzzles, but always feel some kind of disappointment or dissatisfaction mixed in with the accomplishment when the last piece goes in.

    That took me back to your concern, “we could end up with a lot of division and inclusion challenges.” Might it be better to focus on cultural approaches, toolkits, and processes for resolving those, than trying to eliminate them altogether? I’m not suggesting that we’d ever want to ignore signs of toxic personalities. But it seems better to ask about how a prospect deals with collaborative projects and goes about resolving inevitable differences to uncover those who don’t care enough about team harmony and collective success to be a positive addition.

    So I guess what I’m saying is that it may not make that much difference whether you call it “culture” or “values” or “group mores” (reaching way back before you were born to my college Anthro 101 vocabulary for that one!). The danger lies in how you see or apply the “fit” part.

    Tom

    • Hey Tom, thank you for these fascinating thoughts! I’m interested in the jigsaw puzzle analogy. As a kid I used to be an avid Tetris player; I wonder if that could be an interesting framework to think about fit. There are a variety of pieces and they all have the ability to work together well together. Some collaborate more easily than others in any given situation, but if you had too many of the same piece the game would become boring or unwinnable. Just a little tangent there!

      Great thoughts on my potential challenge of division and inclusion challenges if we focused solely on cultural contribution. I’d say we don’t want to eliminate friction altogether; that feels like a healthy element of decision-making and creativity. Definitely feels great to focus on cultural approaches, toolkits, and processes. I’d say our cultural approach in this case is our 10 values, and those values guide our processes. I might be oversimplifying here; I’d be curious to hear if this feels like a workable approach to you or another way of dressing up potential bias. 😁

      • Hey Courtney, yes I do think you’re wise not to try to eliminate friction altogether. It helps us polish the rough edges off our ideas. And I’ve always admired your 10 values! They’re all part of creating the psychological safety that enables teams to have difficult conversations on the way to solving problems and achieving their goals.

        BTW, I’ve finally published that long-promised (threatened?) post on age/experience diversity, which includes discussion of pschological safety, and thought you’d be interested: Elderships: Filling the Experience Gaps in Your Organization http://www.olddoglearning.com/2017/04/elderships-filling-the-experience-gaps-in-your-organization.html

        Love to hear your comments on the “eldership” proposal.

        Tom

  • you have to talk about level of consciousness, because someone with an expanded awareness, able to perceive more subtly, automatically adds value, and most always will have a vision that will expand the status quo of whatever organization takes them on .. how to assess that? presence, less ego, causelessly happy, open to change, curiousity, functions from the heart .. it’s the future

    • Hey Gregory, sounds like a great list of personal values you have there! The exercise we did to name what matters to us, our values (as you did here) and then work backwards to come up with questions we felt would help us assess those specific values. :)

  • Maike Gericke

    Hi Courtney, these are great thoughts! From my experience it is very true that people tend to hire anyone “close to home”, sharing interests, hobbies, home towns or universities, or anything that might vaguely bond them together. And it brings them to work with those that resemble themselves the most. But when it comes to learning from each other and teamwork, diverse teams have a lot of advantages, and I personally have learned most from people that rely on different experiences or see things differently sometimes – agreeing on core values is much more important, and any other difference usually leads to great constructive discussion and new ideas. What is important is that the discussion is facilitated in the right way, and the environment supports collaboration, which I’m sure you got covered very well :)

  • Pedro Veloso

    Hi Courtney,
    that’s a good point you make and I agree with the idea. I find the “vagueness” of “cultural fit” to be difficult to implement, particularly in bigger companies where you need to be able to write down exactly what you want. On the other hand, I totally agree that the “Value fit” is a very good option and very to the point. I like the “cultural contribution” concept too. I think it makes sense and it will give you a much more powerful insight about what you want and even where you want to take the company to. My doubt is: don’t you think that it might become also vague and prone to the same flaws you have found on the “cultural fit” concept?
    Just a little issue that bugged me while I read the post (and it is only about the form, nothing about the content). The main idea is too far down the post. At some point in the reading, I was eager to know what are you using instead of “cultural fit” and it took you too long to get there. You kept explaining and giving context to it, but you would not say what you are using instead :)

  • Bryan Milne

    Trail Day vs Trial day? I think its a typo but then taking someone on a days hiking trail is a very good way to learn lot about who they are and what they might add….