As an employer, you look for certain characteristics in a job applicant. You want to make sure they have the skills and experience needed to do the job well, that they will be prompt and responsible. You also probably want to make sure they mesh with the values and general vibe of the company. You want to ensure you're hiring someone you could see working for your organization. As an employee, you want to work in a place where you feel valued, fulfilled, and productive, somewhere that shares your values, meets your needs and allows you to use your strengths.
This is cultural fit. It's a term that describes the element of the job search and hiring process outside of technical qualifications and keywords on resumes; it prioritizes matching people with organizations they can thrive in and, in turn, help cultivate.
What's a cultural fit?
A cultural fit is an ideal match between an employee and an employer. As in dating, in the job search process, you want to find someone who you can work well with, who shares your basic values, beliefs, and can complement you well.
Basically, a cultural fit is someone who fits seamlessly within the company's organizational culture: the value systems, beliefs, leadership structure, and customs of an organization, the "way things are done around here."
For example, an office that relies heavily on individual initiative and independent tasks would not be a great cultural fit for someone who prefers to work in collaborative teams. Hiring for cultural fit means considering these factors and anticipating them throughout the interview process, actively seeking out people that will easily integrate cohesively with your team.
Why does cultural fit matter?
Prioritizing cultural fit is mutually beneficially for employees and employers. You wouldn't want to work somewhere that doesn't share your values or has a system of leadership that you don't work well within. As an employer, you want to hire people who share the company's goals, work style and priorities, who can be happy and effective working there. You want to people who fit into the family of the organization as a person, not just a worker. That quality is something, unlike technical skills and job responsibilities, you can't really teach, so it's important to look for people that bring what you're looking for in a team member to the table holistically.
The stakes of finding cultural fit are pretty high. A company that doesn't have a great cultural fit with its employees will likely have trouble with effective leadership and dissent within the organization about its values and direction. At worst, it can make or break an organization's efficiency. At best, it can mean working with someone who is difficult to communicate with or clashes with the company's overall mission.
Examples of cultural fit (the good and the bad)
Some scenarios exemplifying good cultural fit:
- A highly-creative team player is hired at an advertising company that has a clan culture and works in small, collaborative teams and prioritizes innovative artistic approaches to ad design.
- A quiet, private person who works diligently but prefers to work alone is hired into a company with a traditional office space and clearly-defined stratified roles and responsibilities.
- An outgoing, friendly extravert is hired at a company that prioritizes personalized client relationships and interaction and cares about meeting a client's individualized needs.
Some examples of poor cultural fit:
- Someone who is very result-oriented and interested in market value and production is hired at a company that prioritizes individual relationships and making a positive impact over profit.
- A person who thrives under a hands-on management style is working at an office that emphasizes independent work and relies on individual initiative, with minimal guidance and instruction from superiors.
Common cultural fit interview questions and answers:
If you are looking to prioritize cultural fit when hiring new members of your organization, there are certain tools you can use throughout the interview and hiring process to gauge how well a potential employee fits into your company culture.
The first step toward this goal is to clearly define what your company's culture is. Maybe this is best exemplified and easily shared through a mission statement, a vision board, a quote or a leadership structure. If your culture is clear and distinct, it will be easier to communicate to potential employees and assess cultural fit.
The interview is the place where you can be most specific about figuring out cultural fit and ask deliberate, purposeful questions. It's also the place where you get a feel for the person behind the job application — their personality, communication style and characteristics.
Here are a few common interview questions, with possible answers, used to target cultural fit:
Who was the best boss you've ever had?
This question reveals a lot about how a person regards their employers: what they look for in a supervisor, how they view their relationship with that person and the management style under which they work best. The answer to this question could be something like:
"My best boss was at my last job. They were friendly, kind and great at communicating. We had an excellent personal relationship, and I always knew exactly what was expected of me and what my job was."
This answer tells you that this person really values personal connection with managers and supervisors and will likely thrive in an environment where coworkers are also friends. They also like to know exactly what their jobs are and how they should be doing them, as opposed to a person who might enjoy a less hands-on style of leadership.
Name two or three factors that you look for in a workplace.
Ideal characteristics of a workplace reveal a person's values, the conditions they work best under and the interpersonal environment in which they want to work. Factors could include the style of work expected, actual values they prioritize or something as simple as "a place where coworkers grab drinks after work every now and then." All of these answers illuminate the kind of place into which this person will naturally fit.
"I look for a place where my opinions are valued, and where I can get to know my coworkers personally. Forming meaningful relationships in a workplace is important to me"
This person would thrive in a small office, especially one that works primarily in groups or in a seminar-style leadership, where opinions and ideas are inherently highly valued.
When/where/how do you your best work? Do you prefer working alone or as part of a team?
This is very important to ask, because a large element of an organization's culture is how its employees are expected to work, as well as the physical space in which that work is done. With this question, you find out if a person does their best work in the morning or the afternoon, if they are a desk person or would thrive in a less conventional office space, and if they work best alone or collaboratively. This last one is important, because the structure of collaborative work vs. individual work is often centric to an organization's culture. A possible answer to this question:
"I do my best work in the morning. I like getting up early and working alone on my laptop. I've done remote work before and like having the freedom to work at my own pace and take initiative."
This person would thrive in a more independent culture, focused on individual innovation. They may not work as well in a culture where everything is decided by and worked on in groups.
Implementing cultural fit to your advantage
Ultimately, cultural fit is a helpful concept you can use, whether you're hiring or trying to get hired. It can help you solidify the specifics of something that is often hard to pinpoint and really articulate the less tangible aspects you're looking for when finding a new workplace, or forming a workplace and outfitting it with employees. If you're a job searcher, once you get very clear about what is important to you and honest about the qualifications you work best under, it's easy to go into interviews and help employers understand who you are right away — and understand who they are right away and if you want to work there.
Sometimes, the fit is not there, and recognizing that is as important as knowing a fit when you've found one, and holding out for that ideal match.
Haley Riemer is a multimedia writer and performer interested in telling stories that are important to women. She's a recent graduate of Tulane University, and her current hobbies include drinking too much iced coffee and talking about feminist political theory at parties.