Assessing cultural fit: necessity or a block to diversity?

A while back, I was on a train listening to the conversation of the people immediately behind me. Yes, if you have to talk that loudly, of course I’m going to eavesdrop!

Apparently their organisation had called in a marketing company to do a re-branding exercise. As part of getting to know what made the organisation tick, the marketing experts had asked something along the lines of “if your organisation was at a party, what would it be doing?”

Interesting question I thought.  Not so the bemused couple discussing the incident. From their highly dismissive comments, it was clear that these rather serious, literal people found even this quite gentle journey into the world of metaphor a step too far.  Which of course said something interesting about the culture and therefore the brand of the organisation.

I was reminded of this recently when I watched a video on The Best Interview Questions to Test Someone’s Personality.   Among the suggestions was the question “if you were a superhero, what superpower would you have?”

Having done a lot of work with organisations that use behavioural competencies, I have developed some reservations about quirky interview questions.  How do you objectively assess the answers?  In this example, the actual superpower is presumably less important than the way the candidate responds and engages with the question.  But which is better: the person who is genuinely spontaneous and funny, or the one who has prepared thoroughly and looked up on the internet how to handle odd interview questions?

Testing whether someone is a good cultural fit doesn’t necessarily have to involve questions about superpowers.  At the more sober end of the spectrum are questions that wouldn’t offend even my easily outraged travelling companions (such as “how would your colleagues describe you?”); at the extreme opposite are ones that would leave them apoplectic (how about “how would you fly a helicopter full of peanuts?”).

The type of question should match the style of the organisation, and will also tell the candidate a lot about whether they would fit in there.  And it’s not just questions.  A report on the weirdest interviews of 2016 so far tells of one chief executive who took a candidate to a restaurant, and asked the waiter to mess up the order because “I want to see how the person responds. That will help me understand how they deal with adversity”.

Part of me is fine with all of this.  You don’t want to recruit someone who’s going to feel completely at odds with the overall culture of the organisation.  There’s nothing more miserable  than being a creative person in a very conservative culture, or a meticulous planner where the ability to improvise is valued.

While it seems to make total sense to assess whether a potential employee is a good cultural fit for the team or organisation, there is a risk that we end up always recruiting PLUs – People Like Us.  And the problem with PLUs is that they not only value the same things as us, but they tend to think like us and behave in the same way as us.

Companies that champion diversity on the other hand “are more innovative because they have a broader spectrum of ideas that are being brought to the table. They also have a smarter workforce. When you throw a wider net, the bar is higher. Diversity also yields a wider corporate network with more depth and richness in terms of languages, cultures and experiences.”

Many organisations deliberately recruit people from different backgrounds with the intention that they will bring something new to the mix.  Unfortunately, all too frequently nothing is done to support these new ideas, resulting in the person either leaving in frustration or falling in line with the style of the dominant culture.  The irony of this therefore is that although the organisation is saying it values difference, the prevailing culture demonstrates the opposite.

Perhaps the problems lies in mistaking cultural fit with sameness. An article on Recruiting for Cultural Fit in the Harvard Business Review gives an example where collaboration is seen as a key organisational value.  Where people have a genuine belief in the value of collaborative work, they will have a stronger culture fit than those who prefer to work as individuals.  Collaborative people however come from a variety of backgrounds and have a range of experiences.   The values and attributes that make up an organisational culture therefore “can and should be reflected in a richly diverse workforce”.