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"Cultural fit"- Synonym for hiring a doormat, yes or no?

Updated on June 27, 2013

In the recruitment industry, the current thing is cultural fit. This has become a cause celebre among recruitment experts, and is also very popular among employers, judging from the amount of space the idea is getting in the media. The downside is that there’s also a very negative interpretation of the exact meaning of the term.

In fairness to the idea of a cultural fit

Some points must be made about the positives before we look at the negative perspective:

1. There is such a thing as a cultural fit in the workplace- Generally speaking, it means “someone who isn’t going to drive us nuts”, particularly in creative and professional/academic jobs.

2. A good cultural fit can also be a good anti-stress option. A lot of people suffer, badly, from workplace cultures where they really don’t fit. It’s like taking a size 10 shoe and wearing a size 4. I’ve done that myself far too many times, and it’s not a lot of fun.

3. The workplace culture is a major driver of workplace relationships. A good fit means good relationships. That is absolutely crucial in high pressure jobs and where interdependence creates a real need for good working relationships.

4. Bad cultural fits can cause major problems. There’s an interesting statistic floating around the US which says that 30% of US employees will at some time or other sue their employers, and that 70% of them win their cases. Bad cultural fits? Yes, and often in multiple ways.

5. Many workplace environments, particularly business units, need people who can work together well, often for long hours. The cultural fit is a peacekeeper in a place where it’s very much needed.

The other side of cultural fit- All negative

In a black humor way, the amount of emphasis being given to cultural fits can be seen as very funny. Cultural fits are a huge contrast to the actual employment market culture. In the US, where the perception of a rabidly hostile, anti-employee culture is a regular feature of forum posts on job sites, the meaning of “cultural fit” means “you fit in with our culture”.

The really negative “culture” can vary from redneck level brutality to ultra-executive, micro-managing selective intolerance, murderous performance reviews and other delights of the office. I spent years writing on employment sites in the US and Europe, and so many people complained about the way they were treated it was absolutely staggering. A lot of the people I saw seemed to be victimized simply for being themselves, not for the way they were doing their jobs, which almost invariably seemed OK or at least within the bandwidth of doing a decent job. That’s a true indicator of a bad cultural fit.

The problem with the cultural fit idea from this perspective is that it’s seen as actually oppressive. The cultural fit is seen as a demand and a threat, not an asset. Given the degree of paranoia which a job environment can create, it’s a difficult idea to work with for many people.

One point worth noting is that the horror stories in relation to workplace culture usually don’t come from upper management. They come from a long way down the food chain, usually at lower middle management levels. The grim side to this point is that the lower middle also by definition includes the majority of the workforce. Even a great place to work and a good career opportunity can be tangled up at the lower levels, simply because some nonentity decides to make life difficult for someone who would otherwise be a very good worker.

It may well be that long-held belief that the mediocrities at the lower levels act this way simply to enforce their own status is true regarding cultural fits, too. In the past, “attitude” was the word used by low grade managers to describe people they wanted out of their hair. It was a reference to people they didn’t like. That’s not covered by Equal Opportunity or any other statute, so it’s always been a blurry issue.

The trouble with cultural fit as an idea is that ideas tend to become ideologies. Don’t be surprised to read stately volumes on the subject of How to Spot a Good Cultural Fit for Your Business, or some similar management science- inspired abuse of the English language. Ideas become dogmas, and dogmas become set in stone.

If you can remember way back when job interviews involved ritual answers to questions, using buzzwords and being “effervescent” while telling some poor soul how you obtained your superior communications skills, “cultural fit” could be worse. It might be the last nail in the conventional job market, before everyone becomes a contractor.

The problem is that a good basic idea has acquired fashionable status. That usually means something horrible will happen to the idea. Keep an eye on this issue, because it will be around for quite a while.


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      Jeanne 3 years ago

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      Paul Wallis 3 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      Thanks for the kind remarks, Ausseye.

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      Ausseye 3 years ago

      Great write on the notion of culture masochism , humans being the wat they were meant to be ..... Animals to be managed and sorted for the leaders convience. Knights of old dominating the working world, doing it for the corporate king. Love the even approach and it's perspectives. So your a writer of note then, and appreciated !