Andrei Rusu

independent coder <a href='https://pineview.io'> for hire</a> / Nightwatch.js maintainer

Not a Cultural Fit

About five years ago I was interviewing in Amsterdam for a software engineering position at one of the largest telecom companies in Norway. It was a casual style interview, with two members of the development team, mostly focusing on technical matters, both regarding the position and my professional background. We spoke about one hour and I was left with the impression that the interview went quite well. There were no uncomfortable questions, no long pauses and no gaffes on my side that I could think of. I was quite certain that the process will advance to the next stage.

A few days go by and no sign. I was starting to doubt my overly optimistic evaluation of the situation. Eventually I get an email response from someone at the HR department saying the two interviewers didn’t feel I was a good fit for the position. I was a bit surprised to hear that. By this time I was expecting a rejection, but the feedback left me quite puzzled. So I followed up with an email asking if there’s any chance I get a more detailed explanation on why I was rejected, to which I got the reply that the two developers who interviewed me felt I have good enough technical skills, but they didn’t feel I would be a good cultural fit.

And that’s that. It’s the most dreaded rejection feedback which an introvert like myself, with a healthy amount of insecurity, knows it cannot be challenged or contested. This so-called cultural fit is not something that you can have a say in, or something you can achieve, whether that is something you want to or not. Also it’s not something you can actively train for, like when you’re rejected because “you don’t have enough experience”, or “you don’t have this or that skill”, or even when they need “someone with leadership skills”. If you’re not a cultural fit, that’s rather permanent, and it’s not like you can go out and acquire some and apply for the job next year, mostly because the “culture” is a very loose term in this case and you’re not sure what it is exactly, but you know that you don’t fit in.

Photo by Justin Main on Unsplash

The Company Culture

It is up to the organisation to make the decision if someone is a cultural fit, based on its own values, policies, and other considerations which collectively make up the company culture, although these are not always clearly defined. So in order to be accepted, one must not only have the skills and qualifications required for the position, but also meet the company’s expectations in terms of cultural fitness. How this decision making process works though is not always transparent, one might say even arbitrary. The candidate can be rejected on the basis of cultural unfitness even when they are applying for a position inside a team or department which is currently being formed, and in which case it is unlikely that the culture is well defined.

The company culture varies to a large degree from organisation to organisation, but most of them have one, either explicitly defined or more indirectly shaped. There is a growing trend in the tech industry where the organisation believes that it needs to think it through and decide its own culture. Based on this, the company will review candidates to fill positions, and these candidates will not only have to be qualified but also will need to possess a certain combination of personality traits that are presumed to contribute to the individual fitting in. Some companies will put it forward on its website or blog, others will be more subtle about it towards potential hires. Sometimes the company will discuss its culture with the interviewee as part of the hiring process, in an attempt to make it easier for both parties to decide if there’s a match.

Cultural Fit Recruitment

The culture seems to emerge at a stage when there’s a large enough degree of prosperity and success in the company, often as part of its expansion process. Over the past decade an idea has started to take shape, especially in the tech industry, that companies should attempt to hire for “cultural fit” and many of them seem to believe that culture fit is arguably more important than skills or experience. The argument is that a poor culture fit will lead to higher employee turnover, to speak in business terms, and that can be costly for an organisation, with the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) placing this cost in their 2008 Retaining Talent report, and using as reference the “Managing Human Resources: Productivity, Quality of Work Life, Profits” book by Wayne Cascio, at 50%-60% of an employee’s annual salary.

There’s a growing number of articles, many of them from business journals such as Forbes or Harvard Business Review, advocating the practice of hiring for culture fit, such as this one from 2015: Recruiting for Cultural Fit. This type of literature is suggesting that in order for an employee to be successful in an organisation there needs to be a strong match between the organisation’s values, ethics, and beliefs and those of the employee.

The key component of a good “culture fit” can be directly linked to employee happiness, and the idea is that a happy employee is more productive, and that will ultimately lead to more profit. It’s a win-win. Companies believe that fostering the well-being of their employees will contribute to their success, and research by the SHRM shows that promoting policies which will increase employees feelings of well-being, such as respectful treatment at all levels, will ultimately lead to greater happiness levels and overall better job satisfaction. There’s plenty of other sources which indicate that happiness improves business results.

Unsurprisingly though, employee happiness is also determined to a large extent by the individual’s own personality, as research carried out by Robertson Cooper Ltd, a workplace wellbeing consultancy, indicates. They have found that employees who scored high on positive emotions and enthusiasm, and lower on depressive tendencies, will experience more “good days at work” than the others.

If a key component of a successful “culture fit” is personality, then, to a significant degree, specific traits would be those which indicate a relatively happy individual. A less than happy person could not only have problems with adapting and being productive, but also be a negative effect on the rest of the team. Whenever there’s a poor cultural fit, the overall morale of the team is affected, and inevitably is the effectiveness as well. At this point, it’s relatively safe to assume that organisations prefer, for the most part, homogeneity vs eccentricity. For this reason there’s a good amount of effort put by a growing number of organisations into screening candidates for cultural fitness.

A candidate, on the other hand, will attempt to put their best face forward, when interviewing for a new job, or a promotion, in order to maximise the possibility of acquiring the position. This, however, poses a problem of imbalance between people’s behaviour and the emotional states they want to appear they are feeling.

A new study by researchers at Stanford, published in the Emotions journal, found that “what is interpreted as the ‘best impression’ varies from person to person and from culture to culture”. The study further suggests that the practice of recruiting for cultural fit may lead to hiring bias. This finding doesn’t seem to be much of surprise, with various organisations already starting to voice their discontent with the practice, such as Buffer.com, which instead advocates on their Open blog for a slightly different approach called “cultural add”. Facebook also has their own response for managing unconscious bias, an internal training programme which they have made public.

The Nokia Moment

Is the company culture really that important for an organisation success? And if so, how far should the organisation go in terms of applying it? A recent BBC4 documentary called The Rise and Fall of Nokia reveals that in its heyday, a core value of Nokia used to be “Respect for people”. But as Nokia was found itself with huge, unexpected success, a shift in values also started to emerge. The film further shows how Nokia’s enormous, quite sudden, success also started to attract a large number of people who might have been drawn to the organisation just because they were looking for success and financial gain, rather than making a worthwhile contribution. This has overtime led to the core value being reduced to just “Respect” alone, which arguably has played a role in Nokia’s eventual inability to further innovate.

So could this be a case of too much company culture? Successful companies which are now in a position of prosperity, are very weary about their success and how long it might last, fearing a Nokia moment which draws analogies with the moment in which Nokia was just before the release of the iPhone.

I can also report that I may have witnessed a Nokia moment in one of my previous jobs in my career. Back in Amsterdam for about five years I have worked for a start-up which was developing a web and mobile chat messenger platform. A very successful product by all accounts, with a large user base and popularity, reaching its peak sometime in 2009 when profitability was at an all-time high, the engineering team operating as a well-oiled machine, and overall employee job satisfaction was soaring. So the company was expanding and, as a result, the company culture was also being shaped more clearly. The core values and principles were emerging, along with various management level position changes. By 2011, the general attitude has changed, the core companies values were prominently displayed and circulated internally, and these changes seemed to have coincided with a decline in the chat messaging market.

The advent of the iPhone and other smartphones gave birth to a new sort of messaging platform, the most prominent one being WhatsApp, which provided new and exciting capabilities for mobile messaging over traditional chat platforms, such as MSN or Yahoo. My employer was found with a very difficult problem to solve, to adapt to the decline of the market in which they were operating. A new platform was needed, one which will effectively take on WhatsApp, in all its glory. Much like Nokia needed a strong competitor for the iPhone, and just as Nokia came up with the MeeGo platform, they also came up with a competitor for WhatsApp, however it didn’t quite work very well in either cases.

Looking back now, one has to ask oneself if there’s any link between a well-defined company culture and promoting creativity and innovation. Do they play well together? It doesn’t seem to be an idea that André Spicer, a professor at the Cass Business School in London, would agree with, as he writes in his essay published in the Aeon magazine: “Often, these cultures imprison employees in narrow ways of viewing the world, such as the common obsession with constant change”. Spicer has also authored or co-authored a series of books, including The Stupidity Paradox (2016) and Business Bullshit (2018).

The One and The Many

Hiring for culture fit doesn’t seem to play well with diversity and inclusion hiring practices either, which not only make up the recruitment rule of thumb in terms of morality and ethics, but also in terms of legality, at least in democratic countries which have enacted laws for equal opportunity employment. In the US, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), “employers cannot use eligibility standards or qualifications that unfairly screen out people with disabilities and cannot make speculative assumptions about a person’s ability to do a job based on myths, fears, or stereotypes about employees with disabilities (such as unfounded concerns that hiring people with disabilities would mean increased insurance costs or excessive absenteeism)”. And mental health issues, such as depression, bipolar disorder, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), are recognised disabilities under the ADA, and more importantly, are non-obvious during an interview.

This leads to the conclusion that evaluating a person’s happiness levels during an interview and using this type of information to determine if that person is a good fit for the position, based on how they might appear emotionally, is not only immoral, but also possibly illegal, under the ADA. In Britain mental health issues are protected against discrimination under the Equality Act 2010, with mental health conditions that are defined as impairment being listed under Section A of the Guidance document.

Could the solution then be to remove the culture component from an organisation recruitment practices entirely? What would that look like? Companies would be left with only qualifications, academic background or experience to judge candidates with. And they would have no choice but to trust that new hires will be a good fit, because if someone doesn’t fit it in a team or a company, there’s probably a reasonable explanation of why that is the case.

Eliminating the culture layer will leave only trust and true diversity & inclusion policies as the baseline, and these should be the only acceptable recruitment practices. This might sound like a concept straight from a utopian novel and well, quite frankly, it is. The world imagined by William Morris in his News from Nowhere (1890) novel is directly associating human happiness with economic activity, and how some of his ideas, not only have practical applications in the 21st century’s “age of the Internet”, as this Aeon.co essay explains, but also how the world seems to have caught up with them.

If recruiting for cultural fit is a practice fraught with problems, then maybe the whole idea of company culture is a failing concept. This might be a classic case of the philosophical problem “The One and The Many”, a concept which was recently debated at length at the 2018 Free Thinking Festival by BBC Radio 3.

The quitting economy

One possible take on this problem could result from a concept which is already gaining a lot of attention in the business and economic space at the moment: decentralisation. If one were to apply this to a company and its employees, then the result would probably be the so-called gig economy or the quitting economy. The concept in which these trends originate is based on the ideas put forward by influential Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek (1899­-1992) and other members The Mont Pelerin Society, commonly referred to as neoliberalism. This school of thought argues that individual employees, existing or prospective, should think of themselves as businesses, an idea which is analysed at depth by Ilana Gershon, associate professor of anthropology at Indiana University, Bloomington, in her Aeon essay, The quitting economy.

In this kind of environment, which seemingly makes the company culture irrelevant, the emphasis is place on the individual (The One), rather than the organisation (The Many). When an organisation starts to grow and develop its own culture that will later serve as a screening tool for new hires to be accepted, it is also, in many cases, creating a closed circle environment. A type of exclusionary society in which bias thrives, and to which the individual has to adapt in order to be accepted. But in the quitting economy these types of incentives for motivating the employee, who is either an independent contractor, or someone preparing for the next job, are no longer relevant, nor effective.

Gershon further indicates in her essay that the driving force now is passion — how passionate an individual is about their work — and it goes on to suggest that “in the quitting economy, you have to work for passion, and working for passion means focusing on the task, not the company”. A manager role is no longer to make sure that an employee is fitting well into the team, but rather to focus on making sure that the employee is able to do their job well, and also to assist them on making the transition to the next job, whenever that might be. Companies now accept that the individual doesn’t really work for the company, they work for themselves and for their passion, and building a career in a company is not something the individual should aspire to.

Even if this thinking might sound a bit too radical for most people to digest, with immediate challenges such as job security and stability, the potentially constant fatigue of having to find a next job, or maybe a lack of feeling that the individual belongs to a group, the initial effect will probably be a shift in the corporate culture narrative, and a transition to a more inclusive and diversified organisational structure.

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