Should You Really Hire for Cultural Fit over Competence?

February 1, 2013

Entrepreneurs like Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh and venture capitalist Brad Feld have made the case that cultural fit trumps competence, but should you really turn away someone who is highly qualified if they are weak culturally?

As a recruiter, I’ve long been a proponent of the importance and value assessing cultural fit in the expansion-stage recruiting process. In fact, I think ensuring that candidates align with your company’s vision and values, management style, and workplace environment is critical to early-stage recruiting success.
That being said, I’ve been slightly surprised by just how far the pendulum seems to have swung in favor of cultural fit.
Take, for example, respected entrepreneur and investor Brad Feld’s recent assertion that companies – especially startups and growth-stage businesses – should value cultural fit over competence when building their early teams.
And then there’s the recent study published in the American Sociological Review by Northwestern professor Lauren Rivera that suggests an increasing number of companies are making hiring decisions that “more closely resemble the choice of friends or romantic partners.” As Bloomberg Businessweek’s Logan Hill writes, that trend is leading to job interviews that focus as much on whether a candidate prefers Stars Wars or Star Trek as they do his or her actual qualifications.

Is Cultural Fit Really That Important?

In fairness to Feld and other proponents, they do qualify their beliefs with an important point: always strive for candidates with both high cultural fit and high competence, but choose high cultural fit and medium competence when you have to make a choice, particularly at startups and growth-stage companies. The key is to strike a balance.
For instance, let’s say you’re considering hiring one of two candidates. Candidate A is slightly less qualified than Candidate B, but more closely shares your vision, values, and passion. According to Feld and Rivera, an argument could certainly be made for hiring Candidate A, even if his or her previous experience isn’t as ideal as Candidate B.
And, to an extent, I agree with that strategy.
An employee who is a strong cultural fit with your organization is more likely to work well with other successful employees, and to continue to build their skills with your company. On the other hand, an employee who fails to fit within your work environment is more likely to leave for another company that is more aligned with their own values.
Cultural fit is critical to expansion-stage recruitment success because it is essential to long-term employee engagement, productivity, and retention.
Feld and Rivera are certainly not alone in their belief that – all things being reasonably equal – cultural fit should trump competence.
For instance, venture capitalist and blogger Fred Wilson says cultural fit can be the difference between a startup succeeding or imploding. As Wilson writes in a post on his blog, growing companies all encounter roadblocks and obstacles at some point in their development. And if a company is full of mercenaries with no shared culture or values, the team will struggle to survive.
On the other hand, Wilson says that businesses with a meaningful culture that everyone buys into will, “stick together, double down, and get through those challenging situations.”
Just ask Zappos’ founder Tony Hseih.

The Zappos Approach

At Zappos Tony Hsieh stresses cultural fit, even over talentHseih and Zappos’ commitment to company culture is well-chronicled, but I think this video on Inc. beautifully sums up his approach. The Cliffs Notes version is that as Hseih was building Zappos, he wouldn’t hire stellar candidates if they didn’t align with the company’s culture. As for employees who refuse to inspire it? He fires them. In fact, Zappos even offers $4,000 to new hires who decide to quit after completing their employee training.
But is that an approach that could actually be effective elsewhere? Are the majority of hiring managers really comfortable with the idea of passing over superstars in favor of less talented candidates who feel like the right match?

Is an Emphasis on Cultural Fit Important Enough to Turn Away a Potential All-Star?

Sure, if a company has a choice of two candidates who are both very talented, but Candidate A seems to embrace the company’s mission and values more, I can absolutely see the company going with Candidate A.
But what about if Candidate B is a superstar whose skills and capabilities are head-and-shoulders above Candidate A? Is it still smart to turn Candidate B away, and make a hiring decision based solely on cultural fit?
By trading Justin Upton, the Diamondbacks stressed culture over talent.The Arizona Diamondbacks seem to think so.
As Yahoo’s Jeff Passan points out, the team made a decision last Thursday to trade star player Justin Upton, a wildly talented but mercurial outfielder, to the Atlanta Braves for a handful of lesser known players and prospects, stressing their belief in the impact of culture over talent. Time will tell if the Diamondbacks made the right decision, but it’s an interesting example of the value placed on cultural fit.
Last October, Eric C. Sinoway caused a stir with his article for the Harvard Business Review explaining why he made a similar move, firing an executive who had delivered strong results, but who Sinoway determined was a “cultural vampire.”

The Potential Downsides to Choosing Cultural Fit Over Talent

Giving preference to cultural fit over performance can certainly raise some concerning questions regarding bias and diversity – as Hill points out, “How do companies value diversity and cultural fit if hiring managers are often biased toward hiring people much like themselves?”
HR and talent acquisition expert Tim Sackett has a lot to say on the topic and explains the problem with always hiring “more people like us” is that “you don’t necessarily get better – you get more of the same.”
But Sackett also says we need to acknowledge that, to at least some extent, this is the way companies have always hired.
“It’s often easier to allow the hiring manager to make a decision – ‘Yeah, I think John will fit in” – passing over a possibly more talented applicant who simply didn’t connect with them as well in the interview,” Sackett says. “Companies do a lot to show they are hiring the best candidate for the job when the reality is, behind closed doors, 99% of the conversation amongst the decision makers is around cultural fit.

A Suggested Approach: Strike a Balance of Talent and Culture

Ultimately, it’s important for expansion-stage companies to find a happy medium between hiring candidates who possess top-tier talent and those who will truly mesh with — and even improve — your company’s culture.
So, instead of focusing on whether potential employees are going to conform to your company’s culture, focus instead on determining whether they are:

  • Likely to succeed when working with your employees
  • Will support or change your company’s values in a positive way

In addition, ensuring a strong cultural fit at an expansion-stage company also requires looking for people who are excited about tackling the challenges and adapting to the changes that often come with working for a rapidly growing business.
While factoring cultural fit into your hiring process is extremely important to long-term team-building success, make sure that it does not outweigh all other factors too heavily. When making decisions about candidates, listen to the voice that says “no” when a highly competent candidate has shown evidence they will not succeed culturally with your organization, and seriously consider the voice that says “yes” on taking a chance on a candidate who hasn’t done it all before, but has a solid skill set and is driven to learn and succeed.
In the end, you’ll find that a highly skilled employee who is not a cultural fit could be a huge detriment to your company, and a candidate who is not as highly skilled and is a great cultural fit could be your best hire.

Do you think cultural fit is more important than competence?

VP, Human Capital

<strong>Diana Martz</strong> is Vice President, Human Capital at<a href="">TA Associates</a>. She was previously the Director of Talent at OpenView.