Culture Add vs. Culture Fit: Which one should you look for?

Peter Drucker once famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” And in the modern workplace, the quote is increasingly true, as company culture is the adhesive that keeps distributed and remote teams connected and engaged.

However, the company values are often seen as fixed, and talent acquisition and sourcing frequently focus on finding candidates that fit the existing culture. But should that be the case, and is there a better way to do it?

Keep on reading to find out why culture add beats culture fit!

What is cultural fit?

To know why culture fit isn’t the best way to source and attract candidates, we need to know what it entails. Someone being a good culture fit means sharing the company's (and team's) values, work preferences, and even interests.

The word “fit” carries the most weight here, as it implies a certain homogeneity of the employee pool. This isn’t ideal, as what we define as values — doing meaningful work, respect towards coworkers, or obsession with customer satisfaction — can easily get replaced by personal preferences and character traits.

This happens because familiarity helps us forge connections, and we’re more likely to have an excellent first impression of someone similar to us than someone different.

So instead of nurturing differences in approaches, culture fit in the workplace can quickly turn into a groupthink scenario where candidates who don’t have the same hobbies, interests, or even sense of humor get excluded from the hiring process.

What does hiring for culture fit look like?

The nitty-gritty of how companies hire people for culture fit will depend on the company, as well as what the company culture is like. However, hiring managers still ask some culture fit questions during the interview process that can alienate or downright exclude candidates.

For example, let’s say the finance department at your company is hiring a payroll manager. The hiring manager is the Senior Finance Manager, who leads a team of three men who enjoy the NFL and often discuss the league on Monday meetings.

If this manager has several candidates to interview, and he gets to ask culture fit questions, it’s likely the candidates who show interest in the NFL will seem like a better fit with the team. This type of bias is not only harmful to the company culture, as it creates echo chambers, but it can also disqualify candidates who have better skill sets.

Put shortly, a hiring process that relies on determining if a candidate fits the culture can often lead to subjective assessments, poorer candidate choice, and a hostile atmosphere in job interviews.

What is culture add?

While culture fit hiring aims to keep the status quo of a team, culture add aims to... well, add to it. Instead of looking for candidates who passively blend into a rigid, pre-set atmosphere, culture add means finding team members that expand the organizational culture.

In a nutshell, a culture add hire brings a diverse perspective, experience, and background to complement the company culture and add value to the team.

For example, suppose a core value in your company is showing respect and appreciation for coworkers as a culture add. In that case, you can hire people who showcase this value in several ways instead of looking for just one behavior.

Hiring for culture add means personal preferences like hobbies and interests are great to hear and share with the team but don’t play a role in the hiring decision. Culture add hiring appreciates different viewpoints, as different angles of problem-solving can help a company thrive.

Why culture add is the way to go

While culture fit hiring emphasizes more of the same behaviors, interests, and preferences, looking for culture add candidates helps companies build more diverse teams and expand employee skill sets.

In this scenario, new hires add to the culture and create a more vibrant work environment where growth and improvement come in different ways. Opting for culture add helps companies reflect their core values better, improve psychological safety, and increase employee retention.

Mistaking personal preferences for core values

With culture fit, it’s easy to conflate character traits and personality with the organization’s culture and values. For example, a candidate’s interests and hobbies can influence the hiring team and become more important than actual competencies, even subconsciously.

On the other hand, culture add hiring focuses on skills, knowledge, and the actual values of a candidate that will help them grow, contribute to the company and impact their coworkers positively.

Unconscious biases

When hiring is focused on culture fit, the recruitment process can fall prey to all sorts of biased perspectives, from confirmation bias to first impressions. This can hinder the candidate experience and make diverse hiring less successful.

Additionally, rejecting a perfectly skilled candidate over not being a good culture fit creates long-lasting adverse effects and leaves them wondering what exactly went wrong. When you’re oriented towards culture add, your hiring practices focus on objective assessments versus subjective statements, making the process simpler and more transparent.

Benefits of hiring for culture add

By now, it’s clear we are deeply in favor of hiring candidates for culture add instead of culture fit. But let’s break down some organizational benefits of this type of hiring, so you can see why it’s a transition worth making.

Evolving your company culture

When you introduce new perspectives and fresh ways of thinking to any team, it only becomes more resilient and able to solve challenges better. The same goes for the culture of a company.

Hiring new employees based on how they can elevate and improve their team and the company is the main difference compared to culture fit hiring. With culture add, new team members should support and inspire their coworkers to solve business problems effectively and creatively.

Improved diversity and inclusion

One obvious advantage of the culture add approach is that it helps your DEI initiatives and efforts. Companies worldwide have realized that diverse demographics of employees and candidates positively impact their bottom line, but nobody wants DEI efforts to be just ticking the boxes.

Hiring for culture add is an excellent way to integrate diverse hiring into your company in a systemic way, as different work styles, preferences, and backgrounds quickly come into play. In remote teams, it is essential to focus on diverse hiring and a wide talent pool, so culture add hiring makes an excellent resource for People teams with distributed workforces.

Enhanced retention and engagement

Hiring with culture add in mind has benefits long after the recruiting process is done. Employees with diverse work environments and a positive company culture report higher engagement levels and are less likely to leave their employers.

So companies that focus on building and expanding a thriving, diverse, and open culture tend to benefit from lower turnover, better engagement, and a better employee experience. In the post-pandemic world, where engagement and retention are top of mind, especially for remote teams, that’s no small feat to achieve.

How to interview for culture add?

So, how can you ensure your hiring process is focused on adding to the culture instead of fitting in? You can implement a few tactics to eliminate biases and assess candidates more objectively.

Start with training hiring managers and teams and making sure they don't ask culture fit interview questions. On top of that, make sure to compare notes from all interview rounds and listen to the feedback of all the hiring team members who took part.

On top of that, make sure you provide standardized tests and assignments to all your candidates. This will ensure they are assessed on an objective scale that is not easily influenced by bias.

And finally, ask culture add interview questions instead of culture fit ones. Examples of culture-add-oriented questions include:

  • Give us an example of a situation where understanding a different point of view helped you solve a conflict
  • Tell us about a time you received negative feedback. How did you react? What did you learn from that experience?
  • How do you approach teamwork? What is your preferred way of collaborating with coworkers?

Questions like these help everyone in the interviewing process discover and vet candidates who can genuinely contribute and enhance the positive workplace culture and help their team thrive.

Exceptional companies always look for culture add

Forward-thinking companies always look for ways to improve and add to their company culture, and hiring based on that is one of the tricks up their sleeves. And culture can sometimes make or break your team’s engagement and retention, especially in remote work environments. So make sure culture always comes first, not as a monolith to be kept, but a work-in-progress that always needs to be improved.

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Andrea Rajic