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Rejecting with insight:
What is and is not cultural fit?

Sep 16 - 2021 | 5 min read
THOMAS MOLENAAR

“Hi, we regret to inform you that we have decided not to progress with your application. You possess a lot of the skills that we are looking for but felt that the cultural fit was not quite there.”

These words constitute some of the worst and most disappointing endings to a recruitment process for a candidate, particularly if they felt they got on with the hiring managers.

‘Cultural fit’ is a powerful tool for recruiters — it is a reason for rejection that is near indisputable to the candidate, as it is subjective and leaves little room for debate. Often, these candidates will have taken a lot of time out of their day to prepare and interview, only to be rejected without any constructive feedback or advice for future interviews. And despite this being seen, almost universally, as bad practice, it happens more often than you would expect.

What is cultural fit?

A candidate’s cultural fit describes how they fit in with teams and the overall company culture, including shared beliefs, values and behaviours. Yet, cultural fit has taken on a life of its own, covering anything that is not directly related to skills. It has become too ambiguous and, in doing so, turned into a platitude devoid of meaning or substance.

As such, I want to explore here what cultural fit should and should not refer to when rejecting candidates, and leverage this to create a far better recruitment experience for the candidate.

Dissecting cultural fit.

When a business uses ‘cultural fit’ as a rejection reason, they typically reject candidates for a few overarching themes. For example, if a candidate has ‘low energy’ or is ‘too aggressive,’ they may have poor personal chemistry with the hiring team. Breaking this down, most rejection reasons tend to fall into one of the following themes:

  • Personal chemistry
  • Leadership style
  • Difference in values
  • Experience in different environments
  • First impressions
  • Interviewer’s biases

Digging deeper, the first three are clearly related to cultural fit but the latter three are more skills and behaviour focused.

Poor chemistry between a candidate and their future manager is a very good reason to reject someone on ‘cultural fit’. Similarly, it would also make sense to reject a candidate if their values or leadership style differs too far from the business’s preferred style, such as being ‘too aggressive’ or ‘too top-down’.

In contrast, it is less of a ‘cultural fit’ issue if a candidate gets rejected based on the environment where they previously, or currently, work. On the one hand, candidates who worked in companies in similar lifecycle stages to your own will likely have more overlap with your requirements. But this is not necessarily a ‘cultural fit’ — rather, it relates to the skills and experiences they have picked up. On the other hand, having no prior experience at your company’s lifecycle stage is not determinate of a candidate’s success or failure. People are remarkably flexible to adapt to different environments and company cultures. This is very visible at Recruitment Process Outsourcing providers and embedded consulting firms, whose employees often ‘go native’ and change their behaviour to match their client’s company culture.

Lastly, the fifth and sixth themes — first impressions and interviewer’s biases — are far removed from ‘culture fit’. Though first impressions are important, they are not indicative of a candidate fitting in well with the culture. The same applies to implicit biases. Within this theme, you may find a lot of subjective preferences, such as wanting people from specific regions, people with stronger language skills, or a preference for one gender over another to meet diversity quotas. Every candidate will be influenced by societal norms and values, but this does not mean there is no overlap with a company’s values or that the candidate cannot adapt. Erin Meyer’s book The Culture Map details how cultures across the world differ across multiple spectrums yet can also interact in a globalising world. Though it is very reasonable to keep a candidate’s cultural starting position in mind, ultimately it does not indicate whether they can (or cannot) adapt to your company’s culture.

Learning from rejecting.

Why is understanding cultural fit important to recruiters and companies? Because realising what does and does not constitute ‘cultural fit’ helps to better identify what skills and behaviours really qualify a candidate for a job. It also shapes the view on what a candidate may need to be coached on to become an asset to the company’s culture.

Understanding cultural fit also benefits the employer’s brand when rejecting candidates. When provided with strong and substantiated feedback, a candidate will feel more acknowledged and learn something tangible for a next interview elsewhere — this reduces the candidate potentially feeling that a company was only interested in filling a vacancy, rather than them. Mitigating this negative experience and providing strong feedback enhances a company’s employer brand.

A framework like this is only meaningful when it is applied appropriately. There are two main take-aways for companies when trying to cut through the ambiguity of ‘cultural fit’:

  • Hiring Manager should be more conscious of the reasons why a candidate does not fit the company’s culture. In turn, a better understanding of why some candidates do and do not fit your culture is also likely to support you in finding the ideal candidate.
  • Recruiters should be comfortable pushing back when feedback about ‘cultural fit’ is unsubstantiated. Informing a candidate that they are rejected is difficult, but doing so with good, helpful and constructive feedback turn it into an invaluable experience.

What is ‘cultural fit’ to you?

Do my insights of cultural fit match yours? What happened when you rejected a candidate, or were rejected yourself, because of cultural fit? Tell me what you think on LinkedIn (@thomasmolenaar) or email me at thomas@thebigsearch.com.

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