When justifying hiring decisions, does the term “culture” sometimes become conveniently vague? If there are unscrupulous, or even baldly discriminatory, factors playing into hiring decisions at an organization, there is no more efficient evasion from outside scrutiny than to say a candidate is not a “culture fit.” Even for leaders that pride themselves on diversity and an openness to differences among their employees, an unexplored or misunderstood notion of an organization’s “culture” can still lead to biases that may go unnoticed for a long time, limiting the breadth of talent and backgrounds that can enrich a workplace.
“Culture” emerged as a common workplace descriptor by the end of the 1980s, a word associated with human societies and civilizations that replaced the more meteorological “climate.“ If a workplace is a culture, then it is an environment where certain values can be cultivated and emphasized by leadership and among its team members, values that also inform the services and products being provided. Reciprocally, the newer term also underscores the important role of individual talent in the development of different values crucial to an organization’s success. It recognizes the profound impact of individual employees throughout the hierarchies of an organization that can lead to a dynamic, healthy corporate identity and character.
So far, so good. Most people would rather work in a culture than a climate, interacting organically and respectfully with colleagues and being valued for their individual contributions to the mission of the organization. But the word is only valuable insofar as it is fully examined. Every workplace culture is unique, but to insist merely that new hires “fit in” does not necessarily suggest that leadership understands the cultural nature of their organization to any useful degree. Without this understanding, the expectations toward new employees become ill-defined, resulting in some missed opportunities with unrecognized talent who may be clashing with the character of a workplace simply because it has not been communicated or understood adequately.
This is where leadership needs to do some work. You may know that your workplace is as aggressively competitive as Oracle; or alternately, as warmly encouraging and familial as Southwest Airlines. Or as unconventional as many of the Virgin brand companies. But beyond that, most organizations take an intuitive, “know it when you see it” approach to recruitment. Leaders need to examine their organizations’ cultures more profoundly. An organization’s mission, for example, should always communicate the tenor of the workplace culture, providing answers to the following questions: What kinds of people should be working here? What should they expect from their team members and leaders? How much latitude can individuals have in the work they do for your organization?
This last question is crucial when it comes to culture fit. As leaders of a dynamic organization, do we want new hires merely to fit the mold of their predecessors and coworkers? Or do we want them to add something to the growth of the organization? I would suggest that, in most cases, we should expect and welcome a balance between the two. New talent should do more than just accommodate a workplace culture: They should add to it as well. There will always be a productive tension between “culture fit” and “culture add,” but organizations should exploit this tension rather than try to eliminate it. When does a new asset unexpectedly enhance the organization’s mission? Or even change it for the better?
Exploring the precise nature of a workplace culture is never a futile or frivolous exercise for leadership. We encourage self-awareness among our employees, and more broadly, we should demand a deeper self-awareness of our workplace cultures. Leaders are better able to steer and guide their teams when the character of the workplace is fully understood and communicated. For new hires, a detailed description of the culture is not a confining or prohibitive establishment of boundaries; it aspires toward an ideal as much as it defines what already exists. It is a map of organizational need that can direct them toward neglected areas where they will find a rewarding place for their own unique talents. Feeling clearly oriented in this way allows individuals to know the difference between an adequate performance and a productively exceptional performance.