Job Applicants' Cultural Fit Can Trump Qualifications

Companies are increasingly hiring employees who fit in with existing corporate culture, even if they’re less qualified
Illustration by Britt Wilson

At a recent job interview at Summit Partners, a private equity firm in Boston, an applicant was asked, “If you could pick one person to play you in a movie, who would it be?” An audit staff applicant at New York accounting firm Ernst & Young was asked, “What are the top five cities you want to go to and why?” An online magazine asked an editor, “Where do you vacation in the summer?”

Job interviews are becoming more like first dates. The employment site Glassdoor has collected 285,000 questions asked by hiring managers, and the following four rank among 2012’s 50 most common, though they have little to do with work: What’s your favorite movie? What’s your favorite website? What’s the last book you read for fun? What makes you uncomfortable? Over the last couple of years, spokesman Scott Dobroski says, the site has found “a significant rise in questions asked about cultural fit.”

In the December issue of the American Sociological Review, Northwestern professor Lauren Rivera concludes that companies are making hiring decisions “in a manner more closely resembling the choice of friends or romantic partners.” Rivera found that apparently off-topic questions have become central to the hiring process. “Whether someone rock climbs, plays the cello, or enjoys film noir may seem trivial,” she wrote, “but these leisure pursuits were crucial for assessing someone as a cultural fit.” As a result, Rivera argues, “employers don’t necessarily hire the most skilled candidates.”

The phrase “cultural fit” may summon up obnoxious images of old boys clubs and social connections, but it’s a powerful buzzword among human resources professionals. A cooperative, creative atmosphere can make workdays more tolerable and head off problems before they begin. “I used to work for an e-commerce company that spent a lot of time refining its culture,” says Mercedes Douglas, now head of recruiting at Kikin, an Internet search startup. “I hired someone as a manager, and it created a lot of tension because he didn’t fit in. People tried to alienate him because they weren’t interested in him as a friend,” she says. And it also goes the other way. “I once hired a woman who really didn’t have the right background or experience for the job, but who I hit it off with during the interview,” says Rebecca Grossman-Cohen, a marketing executive at News Corp.. “And because we got along so well, I was able to train her easily, and she ended up doing great things for us.”

Especially in this slow economy, more employers are asking “Star Trek or Star Wars?” (as a programmer was recently asked by an employer) because fit is believed to be a strong predictor of employee retention. The longer employees stay around, the more companies save in hiring and on-boarding costs. For instance, the online retailer Zappos offers new employees who are struggling $4,000 to quit after a week’s work, rather than waste resources to train someone who doesn’t gel with the group. The sandwich chain Pret A Manger even goes so far as to have potential employees work for one day, after which they’re either voted in or out by the existing team. Applicants who don’t get along with others are paid for their time and asked to leave.

Glassdoor’s Dobroski reports that job seekers cite company culture as their second-highest priority, “almost tied with salary.” In an employment market in which many first-time employees relocate for work, offices are becoming surrogate families and social communities. New hires, especially young workers, want the secret Santa gift exchanges, the karaoke nights, and, increasingly, like-minded colleagues who share their values.

“These trends are being driven by millennials because they care about culture,” says Dan Schawbel, author of Me: 2.0. “Research shows that millennials typically stay at a job for about two years—and they have different priorities. They’d rather have meaningful work over more pay, or work for a company that gives back or cares about the environment. They want a culture that’s less hierarchical, more flexible, and more understanding of difference, because millennials are the most diverse generation.”

This last point presents a modern quandary: How do companies value diversity and cultural fit, especially if hiring managers are often biased toward hiring people much like themselves?

“A lot of times, cultural fit is used as an excuse” for feelings interviewers aren’t comfortable expressing, says Eric Peterson, manager of diversity and inclusion at the Society for Human Resources and Management. “Maybe a hiring manager can’t picture himself having a beer with someone who has an accent. Sometimes, diversity candidates are shown the door for no other reason than that they made the interviewer a little less at ease.”

In Rivera’s study, one Indian woman says hiring based on cultural fit “seems to me a very [shakes her head] American thing. But it’s what [companies] want.” Yet this idea of tightly knit cultural affinity seems to run counter to the U.S.’s melting-pot ethos, as well as our glorification of diverse cinematic superteams—from The Magnificent Seven to Ocean’s Eleven, and onto Star Trek, Star Wars, The Matrix, and The Avengers. “In all of these stories,” says Sean Howe, author of the history Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, “it’s not just the accumulation of complementary abilities that makes the group succeed, it’s the ways in which each individual is challenged and transformed by the very environment of diversity. Which, come to think of it, is really what society is all about.”

Hiring is the moment when these American ideals about team diversity collide with the reality of building a cohesive, practical staff. For the manager, it’s also the time when abstract notions about corporate culture collide with instinct and bias. We may aspire to model our workplaces after the Starship Enterprise but in reality they often look more like the Borg Cube. Most companies have elaborate systems of checks and balances and executive-level diversity officers who work hard to ensure inclusiveness of race, gender, and sexuality. And working exclusively with your pals can also have a major competitive downside: groupthink.

“It’s probably human nature to generally like to hire people who look like us, sound like us, act like us. But you get a culture of sameness,” says Randy Hains, managing partner of Atlanta’s Bell Oaks Executive Search. “People lack an understanding of how to go out and recruit for a diversity of thought—those people who break the rules but are great for the company. An EBay or a Google will hire those intellectual guys who won’t fit into most Fortune 500 companies, whereas a Home Depot or a Coca-Cola will hire a guy because he fits in perfectly, not realizing that he’s not going to move the needle—not even a little bit.”

Numerous studies have proven that diverse workforces give companies competitive advantages in skill, employee retention, innovation, and profits: A 2009 study by University of Illinois sociologist Cedric Herring found that companies with the highest levels of racial diversity reported, on average, 15 times more sales revenue than those with less diverse staffs. And the American Sociological Review survey warns that a focus on hiring employees with the same hobbies and backgrounds can limit diversity. To avoid this tendency, companies now struggle to codify what, exactly, they mean when they talk about cultural fit.

“A skilled recruiter can override those biases,” says Amy Hirsh Robinson, principal of workplace consulting firm Interchange Group. “Sometimes you need to change your culture because there might be that one person who has a different thought that could have saved a business.”

The trick to building a creative, modern workforce might be asking all those silly questions—What’s your favorite movie? What’s your favorite book? What makes you uncomfortable?—and valuing most highly the answers you’ve never heard before. “It’s quite possible to define that office culture as one that’s open to diversity, so that you’re looking for openness in an employee,” says SHRM’s Peterson. “You just have to decide if you’re hiring for the culture you have or the culture you want.”