Culture Or Capability?

Recently, I read an article from Bloomberg Business Week about how many employers believe it to be more important for prospective hires to have a strong cultural match with a company’s existing staff, than it is for applicants to just have strong skills.  Really?  I guess I didn’t get the memo on this edict.  When did the quality of one’s skills and abilities take a back seat to their personality in hiring decisions?
Don’t get me wrong: Likability is important in a hiring decision.  HR and departmental managers need to feel confident that new team members will “fit in”.  But in my opinion there are far too many issues that can rear their ugly little heads when employment is based on non-work related traits.  Can “cultural fit” be formally considered an “essential function” in a job description?  I don’t think so!
One of the hallmarks of the most successful companies is the diversity of their staffs.  Bringing together people with divergent backgrounds, cultures and experiences, to work on common goals, creating corporate melting pots that congeal to create great products and services is what makes the best employment opportunities.  It’s what makes for great companies, not just here in this country, but worldwide!
While I agree there are positive aspects to making hiring selections based in part on cultural fit and like-mindedness, it may not be a suitable practice for all companies.  Certainly in smaller firms, say with less than 50 employees, where everyone has far greater opportunities to get to know each other, cultural fit can make a big difference in how well people work together.  When you see and work with the same people every day, common lifestyle experiences and references can have a positive effect on their productivity and their acceptance of one another.
But in a larger company with hundreds or thousands of employees, hiring predominantly based on cultural considerations opens the door for all kinds of age, racial and gender bias, cliques, and segregated work groups.  Anyone who sees themselves as different will truly feel set apart and excluded.
The phrase, “cultural fit” doesn’t have to represent sameness of employees’ personal backgrounds, ethnicities, geographic origins, or even their love of the same pop cultural references like tv, movies or music.  And smart employers recognize that hiring based on some of these criteria can present legal challenges they’d rather not face!
But there’s a lot positive to be said for cultural diversity in the workplace. The idea development and creativity that comes from working with people who see things differently than you do; who challenge the status quo that exists when too many in a work group think alike.
The challenge is for human resources professionals to bring in candidates who share common attributes in their creativity, sense of teamwork and cooperation, professional ethics, dedication, and knowledge of the work they are expected to do.  Creating a fit based on employees collective focus on goals and achievement, interest in the work being done, and the recognition and appreciation of their contributions makes for a stronger, more productive, collegial and engaging work environment.
By no means am I suggesting that HR people ignore the cultural commonalities that build community and consensus.  All the factors that enable people to work well together and that manifest and improve employee morale and engagement must be considerations! Employers want their employees to work well together and get along comfortably.  And if you’re part of that hiring decision, yes, you want to genuinely like the people you choose to hire and work beside.  But I believe the primary reason behind a hiring decision should be the candidate’s abilities to do a job.  Whether or not they are into the same social and cultural phenomena must be a secondary consideration.
Certainly from the employees perspective, spending eight or more hours each day with people you like and share common points of reference makes for a more fun, relaxed and congenial work experience.  And as long that conviviality doesn’t interfere with productivity, their bosses will be happy.
Does common cultural experience translate into a happier, more productive work force?  Does this same cultural fit present distractions and exclusionary behaviors for those who don’t share that commonality?  Do you want to work exclusively with people who think and behave just like you?
What is it like where you work?  Is hiring based on culture or capability?  I’d love to hear from you!
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  1. Hank -

    Thanks for your comments, mamasnydes.
    I don’t disagree with the points you raised. Yes, culture and personality are not the same. However the influence of one does affect the other. One’s personality is influenced by their culture, and vice versa. But the overlying idea in the post (and the Bloomberg Businessweek article) is that both are in some cases becoming primary considerations in hiring. And frankly, just because 2 or more individuals like the same things, have similar backgrounds or personality types, doesn’t automatically mean they will work well together.
    IMHO, an employer must consider skills first, as is your approach to candidate selection. The cost of recruitment and training is high enough without a company having to go through the process multiple times to fill the same opening because of a bad fit, regardless of the reasons.
    Thank you, again, for your contribution.
    OH, and the original article is here:

  2. Mamasnydes -

    I think you raise some interesting and appropriate points here Hank. As the manager of a small firm who is partially responsible for the hiring process, I am eager to respond to your approach. You begin with skills versus personality, but it seems you replace personality with culture, using the two interchangeably. They are not.
    You recognize the importance of employees working well together, with cooperation and work ethic being of high importance. I didn’t read the Bloomberg article, but that to me occurs when personality traits align themselves. Cultural differences by definition would include, sex, age, religion, language, music, cuisine among other things. While the two are not mutually exclusive, they are not the same. I like rock, you like opera, but we’re both flexible and good communicators, so we work well as a team offering different approaches. People can be like minded, but quite diverse at the same time.
    This brings me to my approach to hiring. First and foremost, I look at skill. Certain levels of employment require certain defined skills. Period. Once you have narrowed your search down to a small pool of similarly skilled candidates, then personality is considered. If a person has the skills to do a job and doesn’t match up exactly to the other candidates, but is a much better personality fit, I would give that person preference. Skills can be taught. We’ve tried both approaches at my firm and the personality misfits have been short lived. This a waste of valuable resources as a lot of time and money is invested in the training process. I, too, am interested in hearing what other firms are practicing.

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