Inside the Box


Screening for “culture fit” has become an essential part of the hiring process. But do like-minded employees actually build strong companies — or merely breed consensus culture?

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Screening for “culture fit” has become an essential part of the hiring process.

But do like-minded employees actually build strong companies — or merely breed consensus culture?

For Sergio Ibarra Bolaños, a recent University of Oregon graduate, the quest for employment wasn’t just a job search.

It was a journey. A journey that included career counseling, peer and mentor consultation, informational interviews, exhaustive research and introspection. A journey that ultimately led him to a place where he spends his workdays surrounded by like-minded people who share his values and his desire to make a difference in the world.

In short, the Simple Finance project manager and financial analyst says he has landed his dream job largely because it was the perfect “culture fit.”

“I think culture fit is crucial,” Bolaños says. “Bringing in folks who don’t fit an organization’s culture can tear away at the social fabric of the company. When there is an environment where people feel they belong, people want to go to work, to innovate and do better things.”

He is not alone in his thoughts. Today the buzzword is “culture fit.” This means you not only need the right résumé, you also need the right personality, the right attitude and the right “culture” to fit the job.

 “It is easy to reject someone
as a culture misfit if the person
is the wrong age, gender, race
or simply different.”
— Berrin Erdogan,
Portland State University
 0915 culturefit03

With Oregon’s robust talent pool, culture fit is a way for employers to sort through applicants. And indeed, the idea of “culture fit” sounds like a reasonable strategy. Everyone wants to hire employees eager to work, to get along, to achieve desired results and, at the end of the day, go home happy office evangelists. These days we hear as much about companies for their culture as we do their products and services. Think Nike. Google. Starbucks. Southwest Airlines.

But it’s one thing for a company to have a particular culture; it’s another thing to make hiring decisions based not on résumés but on what amounts to sometimes unspoken personality tests. Yet decades after the concept of hiring for “culture fit” was first explored, it’s become even more of a buzzword.

How companies go about this process varies with each candidate and/or enterprise. Interestingly, this strategy can run counter to the myriad of 21st-century software screening tools and immeasurable amounts of Big Data available to Oregon recruiters and human resource executives (see below: Automated hiring). And while it works in some places, there are also potential land mines of which hiring managers should be aware, including stagnant thinking and accusations of bias.

“Some people don’t like this
process very much. Others
will love it, and those are
the people we want to play
— Dave Sanders,
CEO, Zoom+
 0915 culturefit02

“Culture fit is very easy to confuse with ‘different from us,’” says Berrin Erdogan, a professor of management at Portland State University who specializes in person-to -job fit and misfit research. “Unless companies are mindful and deliberate about this, it is very easy to reject someone as a culture misfit if the person is the wrong age, gender, race or simply different.”

Experts define culture fit as the degree to which a person shares an organization’s core values. Every organization has a culture, a personality that distinguishes it from other organizations. Culture consists of unwritten rules about how decisions are made, what matters, and how employees are expected to act, think and work.

The concept, according to Erdogan, rose to popularity in the 1980s, with the publication of the best-selling book In Search of Excellence: Tales from America’s Best-Run Companies, by Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr. The idea that culture makes a difference and gives companies a competitive advantage became popular, and organizations began hiring for culture fit.

Thirty years later, culture fit is a driving force in corporate recruiting and hiring. According to Cubik’s International Study on Job and Culture Fit, more than 80% of global survey respondents claimed culture fit is important, and nearly 60% admitted they have rejected candidates based on their lack of cultural fit. They also indicated they would dismiss a high-potential employee if they were out of step with the organization’s culture.

Oregon CEOs appear in lockstep with that trend. In interviews, executives linked the desire to find “the right person” to startup culture and pressure to sustain a company’s off-the-charts growth. In addition, employers in Oregon, and Portland in particular, have a large talent pool from which to choose, filled with people who have decided to move here, then worry about getting a job. The present-day workforce also includes a mix of Millennials, Gen Xers and baby boomers — with a wide range of behaviors and often differing sets of values. Finding what unites them is less about GPA or skill set and more mind set and mission driven.

Keen Footwear is a good example. You don’t have to be a medal-winning triathlete or a veteran climbing guide to work at Keen, says Brent de Saxe, the company’s senior recruiting manager. But a commitment to the environment and love for the outdoors can open employment doors. Erdogan says such patterns exist among many Oregon employers. People who end up working for Nike typically will be team players passionate about sports. Intel values its analytical, data-driven culture, so they will ask questions that display a job applicant’s thought processes.

For some companies, finding the right fit is so important, they’re willing to make some gambles. “If we find two candidates who are good, and we only have one opening, we’ll typically create another job for that second candidate. We might need them a month from now,” says Scott Breon, chief revenue officer for Vacasa, a high-tech vacation rental property and marketing firm experiencing exponential growth.

0915 culturefit01

Culture hack: Sergio Ibarra Bolaños (center) attends Project Days, a team-building event for Simple Finance engineers.

At Vacasa, it’s hard to hire based solely on industry experience anyway. That’s because Vacasa is driving the industry, says Breon, who speaks with the signature confidence — some might say arrogance — of a tech-startup executive. “We need people who can not only think outside the box but think of what that box might look like a year from now,” he says. “We discovered not everyone is capable of that level of adaptability and explosive growth.”

Vacasa learned this the hard way. “We saw a trend in people who would come onboard, and Vacasa wasn’t the right fit,” Breon says. “They were too ambiguous to change and not inclined to take charge as change occurred.”

Breon says Vacasa added culture fit screening to its hiring process about a year ago. In addition to assessing people via Skype and in person, the process includes a series of questions aimed at aligning Vacasa values with those of potential candidates. Questions include: Tell me about a time you were assigned work you were not prepared for? What did you do in your last role to make the workplace more fun? Who inspires you and what are some of the ways you maintain balance in your life?

Zappos has been an
extremely vocal proponent
of culture fit. That company
has two sets of interviews,
the skills interview and the
culture interview, and
candidates must pass both.
The culture interview is
based on Zappos’ 10 Core
Values; if an applicant doesn’t
pass it, they don’t move
forward in the process,
regardless of how much of a
technical fit they may be. “We
infuse culture into every step
of the recruiting process,” Mike 
Bailen, senior HR manager at
Zappos, wrote in a corporate
blog. “We really place such a
high value on culture that if a
candidate demonstrates
behaviors out of alignment with
our core values, we will stop the
process right there.”

Zoom+ is another Oregon company interested in finding employees who fit their culture — a task that might seem a contradiction in terms considering the company is in a time of major transition. It is adding products, services and clinics, and it most recently entered the insurance arena.

“We’re not looking for people who want a job so much as they want to be part of a movement,” says CEO and co-founder Dave Sanders — another startup leader who speaks in world-historical terms about his company and hiring practices. “We’re bold, ambitious and hire team players who want the team to win. We want people who put the team victory above an individual medal.”

So what kind of people, exactly, does that mean? Last month Zoom+ hired former Nike executive David Kohel as its chief technology officer and also lured Mike Brenner, co-founder of Betamore, a Baltimore incubator, as product manager for Zoom+ Meds and Zoom+ Lab. Last year former Ziba executive creative director Steve McCallion was hired by the company as vice president and creative director.

For a company aiming to revolutionize the health care industry, there’s not a lot of health care experience on that list of top hires. That’s not a concern, Sanders says. “We rarely hire for our nonclinical roles from the health care industry. We look for those who possess rich experiences from every part of the economy. It’s very deliberate.” In other words, they hire people who fit the corporate culture and the particular job — not necessarily those with the predictable entries on their résumé.

Zoom+ job applicants are put through a simulation of what a day on the job they’re seeking might be like, rather than a standard interview. They’ll role-play with potential colleagues, and a future health care service developer might be asked to take his or her process to the white board and demonstrate necessary and useful skills.

“Some people don’t like this process. Others will love it, and those are the people we want to play with,” Sanders says. Mostly, he’s looking for people who can think on their feet and adapt to constant change. If they can’t, they’re weeded out. De Saxe echoes that sentiment, describing Keen’s corporate culture as not so much one that requires everyone gets along with teammates, but one where people thrive in a dynamic and fluid environment. “Everyone who works at Keen can make a difference in the brand,” de Saxe says.

Cultural-fit advocates like de Saxe and Sanders argue that companies are best served when they select employees who mesh well with the corporate culture and management style, leading to better performance, satisfaction and employee loyalty.

The concept certainly sounds objective, rational. And yet there’s a contradiction embedded in the culture-fit logic, in that screening for similar traits tends to reinforce homogeneity, not diversity. Consider: When there are two equally qualified candidates, recruiters say who is hired can most definitely be determined by a “gut feeling” —  who is most likely to thrive in this particular environment. The problem is, those sorts of instincts can often be based on subtle, even subconscious attributes, like a candidate’s looks, personality or hobbies. Even Bolaños, an overt proponent of the concept, acknowledges potential pitfalls to hiring for culture fit.

“The line between culture fit and snobbery is very fuzzy, and companies can easily fall on the wrong end of the spectrum if they are not careful,” he says.

Roy Notowitz, managing
director of the Notogroup,
an executive-level search
firm, says culture fit is
extremely important at the
executive level as leaders
are stewards of the culture
and can often shape the
culture in a positive or
negative way.

Notowitz, who, prior to
launching his own firm,
worked in-house recruiting
for Nike and Intel, says he
typically will travel to
clients, attend team meetings
and meet with individual
stakeholders – recently as
many as 30 employees for
one New York City-based
client – to uncover the themes
of the culture. “[It] ultimately
ensures a better fit as we are
truly able to know if a person
will be a culture fit versus
trying to make a quick
judgment with limited feel for
it,” he says. “This is, in fact,
one of the hardest aspects of
what we do as external

When you ask questions designed to ferret out similarities — like hobbies, kid schools and educational background — companies can unintentionally create class bias, says Ed Harnden, managing partner of Barran Liebman, a boutique labor and employment law firm.

“They find they have the sameness of thought, the sameness of background – everyone went to MIT and are at the top of their class,” Harnden says. “But you’ve likely excluded a large number of qualified candidates from the interview process. Hiring for culture fit will mean you are hiring like-minded individuals.”

Carlos Bueno, a Silicon Valley engineer who has written widely on tech subcultures, recently noted the preoccupation with culture fit has led to “a mirrortocracy”: a “pseudoscientific mythos [that] obscures and reinforces the belief that only people who look and talk like us are worth noticing.” Portland’s startup culture exhibits some of these traits. Breon and Sanders, for example, admit their workforce trends younger, with more people in their 20s and 30s than 40s and 50s. This is a group, studies show, that is interested in working where they can express their creativity. That, in turn, is influencing office culture, which in turn can be attractive to like-minded people — in other words, more millennials.

Culture fit may propel companies to great heights. But legal and other employment experts caution that hiring based on similarities in values, personality, thoughts, attitude, style and/or backstories can backfire. It can lead to overconfidence, a dearth in creativity and failure to innovate — the latter being among the very reasons CEOs claim to hire for culture fit.

At worst, culture fit could wind up being branded as discriminatory. Take Google, for example, a company whose culture apparently cultivates brilliant minds, values innovation and rewards creativity — a workplace so desirable that. at one point, it was swamped with 75,000 applications for 6,0000 openings. Google’s employees tend to skew younger. Google, in fact, is being sued for age discrimination by a 64-year-old engineer who says he was not recruited by the company because he was too old.

In court documents filed in U.S. District Court in San Jose in April, Robert Heath states his application for a software engineering job was unfairly dismissed by Google in 2011, despite the fact that he had “highly pertinent qualifications and experience” and had been called a “great candidate” by a Google recruiter.

Gender also can be an issue when hiring for culture fit. It’s no secret that there are far fewer women than men employed in the high-tech industry, both nationally and here in Oregon’s Silicon Forest. A recent lawsuit against Twitter demonstrates the risks of over-relying on cultural fit in hiring and promotions. Twitter, like many tech companies, is quite homogeneous, with a workforce that’s 70% male (including 90% of its tech workers) and 59% white. While 29% are Asian, other ethnicities make up only 12% of the company, and 4% of its leadership. According to former employee Tina Huang, who filed a gender-discrimination lawsuit against the company, this homogeneous culture is the result of an employment process designed to hire and promote candidates similar to existing employees and managers.

Shanley Kane, CEO of Model View Culture, an independent media platform covering technology, culture and diversity, says in a Q&A with FastCo.Labs that she is aware of a number of women who have been turned down for jobs because they weren’t a culture fit. “I know a lot of people, not just women,” she says. “But it seems women are disproportionately affected. People will say ‘not a culture fit,’ without having to define what that means. It’s almost this sacred space which lets them uncritically reject people from the company or from the team.”

Job seeker Jude Lieberman of Portland was not rejected for positions because she is a woman, at least not to her knowledge. But she is intimately familiar with the idea of culture fit. She left a previous job because she felt she didn’t necessarily mesh with what she describes as the “command and control” office environment.

“Personally, they treated me very well, gave me a lot of leeway and even created a part-time job for me when I went back to school,” Lieberman says. “But I felt very restricted by the culture there, and it wasn’t a place I could see myself long term.”

 “We discovered not everyone
is capable of that level of
adaptability and explosive
— Scott Breon,
chief revenue officer, Vacasa
 0915 culturefit04

Lieberman, who now works at Nike, was passed over for a post in a different department there because managers felt she might not be aggressive enough to hack its frantic pace. It’s not necessarily an assessment she shares or fully understands. But she says she’s happy in her current gig as a global HR communications manager.

All of this underscores the paradox of the contemporary workplace. We live in a globalized world that privileges diversity and disruption of traditional business models. But the new employment models don’t always seem that different from the old ones. Startups may have done away with the 1950s-style corporate cog-in the machine. Yet evidence suggests we live in an increasingly siloed world, where groups of similarly inclined people recreate their own reality based on race, class, television shows — and place of employment.

The national average
median age of all
employees is 42.4
years, according to
the U.S. Department
of Labor. According
to the lawsuit, the
median age of
Google employees
is 29.

People with different backgrounds can have different ideas. They help increase creativity, drive innovation, challenge the status quo and disrupt organizational bad habits. In fact, studies show diversity in the workplace can be a key factor in driving innovation and growth, helping to bring new perspectives to issues.

In a region that prides itself on open-mindedness and progressive culture, diversity is part of the community ethos. Still, in a state that is already ethnically quite homogeneous — and especially in the city of Portland, where there is considerable cultural sameness in other ways — it may be a lot easier to find candidates who are similar, rather than different, from everyone else. 

In that sense, the preoccupation with culture fit is a sign of our times: the carrying card of a generation that locates the source of individual expression and entrepreneurial success in groupings of similarly inclined workers.

For those who don’t fit the mold, the job search continues.

Automated hiring

Hiring for culture fit is clearly a priority for many Oregon employers. But there’s no denying this strategy can run counter to the pre-employment software screening programs so readily available to recruiters.

Ongoing technological advancements, widespread adoption of the Internet and social media have created an evermorecomplex market for recruiters, to be sure. But these efforts also have allowed vendors to create more advanced recruitment software designed to streamline the process. Some estimates put the talent/recruitment management software industry at upwards of $2 billion by the end of 2015.

Employment experts say these platforms, provided by vendors such as Kronos, Cornerstone OnDemand, Evolv, Oracle Taleo and PeopleAnswers, enable companies to identify qualities and the overall profile of employees who stay longer and perform better.

“The idea is, if you have a large database of employee values, preferences, personality and competencies where you can relate these characteristics to job performance, turnover and other behaviors you care about, it is possible to come up with the profile of the employee who will excel on the job,” says Berrin Erdogan, a professor of management at Portland State University.

At the same time, there are no absolutes. These high-tech systems allow employers to replicate the best-performing employees, provided there are large numbers of employees who perform the same job, and the new positions in need of qualified candidates resemble the old positions. Industries where this is useful might include retail or manufacturing.

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