When it comes to hiring, there are lots of qualities that recruiters and hiring managers look for, but in my experience, there’s really just one that’s a real game changer.

Although hiring skills are important, in the end it all comes down to one critical component — culture fit.

How well a new hire fits into your organization’s culture is THE most important component to their ultimate success. Yes, interviewing for a person’s “culture fit” is something your talent managers should be laser focused on as they search for that next great hire, because without it, even the most skilled candidate is likely to be a bust.

That’s why I get a little crazy when I talk to TA professionals about finding great talent and never hear the term culture fit cross their lips.

Is culture fit the most important quality?

If you believe what The Wall Street Journal says, culture fit” is probably the most critical quality that talent managers should be hiring for. As The Journal points out:

Though employment experts warn that fuzzy criteria such as culture fit may permit bias in the hiring process and result in a lack of diversity, companies say culture often determines who succeeds or fails in their workplace.

A 2016 survey from research and consulting firm Millennial Branding and career website Beyond.com found that human-resources staff, when considering recent college hires, ranked cultural fit above a candidate’s referrals, coursework and grades.”

But the WSJ also made the point that hiring for culture fit can also make it easier to discriminate against certain job candidates, opening up the company to legal issues if they choose to put too much emphasis on it.

“In many organizations, it is this catchall for, ‘I don’t feel right about this person,’ ” says Lauren Rivera, an associate professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

In her studies of hiring at banks and law and consulting firms, she’s found that people use culture fit as an excuse to weed out candidates who are too different from their ranks. … and Ernest Haffner, a senior attorney-advisor in the office of legal counsel at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, described culture fit as a “vague,” “amorphous” term that potentially could lead companies to exclude specific groups.”

Skills are important, but culture fit is the game changer

I get where the attorneys are coming from, but I’m less concerned about “bias in the hiring process” when it comes to hiring for “fit” than I am about making “fit” the be-all-end-all quality that trumps everything else during hiring, and that seems to be what The Journal story is getting at.

Not too long ago, I was part of a special committee that was doing a search for a new leader for a prominent local non-profit organization. The previous leader, although immensely talented in many areas, had huge struggles with the organization because — and don’t be surprised by this — he wasn’t a very good “fit” with the organization’s culture.

The reason for this is because the previous search committee that chose him didn’t spend very much time focused on his “cultural fit” was with the organization. They concentrated on some very specific job skills he had that, although important, didn’t ultimately help him to succeed.
The fact of the matter is that it was this leader’s inability to fit within the organization’s culture that became a bigger and bigger issue over time. It drove a wedge between him many of those he was leading and working with, so much so that it eventually led to a huge breach and his subsequent departure.

So, as a member of the new hiring committee trying to replace him, I advocated this approach in our search for his replacement:

  1. Any serious candidate MUST have all the required skills and talents needed to perform the job. This was our bottom line, and only candidates who could demonstrate that they had these skills would make it to our list of finalists for the job.
  2. Once we were satisfied that a candidate had all the required skills, the process pivoted to the issue of cultural fit. No one made it to the finalist stage without the right skills, but we also weren’t going to seriously consider them for the position unless we felt good about their ability to “fit” with our culture and help us avoid the problems we had with our departed leader.

In this way, we acknowledged that cultural fit was a huge issue we had to address, but not until we were satisfied that the candidate had all the other required skills and talents as well.

It’s all about meshing with the culture

This seems to be the hiring process for a number of companies that focus on “fit,” as The Journal story noted:

Employers are finding new ways to assess job candidates’ cultural suitability as they seek hires who fit in from Day 1. … Companies such as Salesforce.com Inc. have experimented with tapping “cultural ambassadors” to evaluate finalists for jobs in other departments. Zappos.com Inc. gives company veterans veto power over hires who might not fit in with its staff — even if those hires have the right skills for the job.”

I’m not a big fan of many of the odd things that Zappos management does, but I agree with the thinking that having the right skills for the job is only half of what a new employee needs to be successful.

By the way, remember that new leader my committee was looking for to lead the non-profit? We actually found someone with great skills and talents who we also thought would be a great “fit,” too. So, we hired her.

She’s been on the job a little over a year, and from all that we have seen, we hit a home run. She’s a great “fit” and brings a great many qualities to the position that the previous leader did not.

In this case, it really was all about the culture fit.

Remember: Job skills are always important, but skills without a really good “fit” with your culture will only leave you with a skilled person who doesn’t stand much of a chance of ultimate success. Is that the kind of hire you really want to make?

John Hollon

John Hollon is managing editor at Fuel50, an AI Opportunity Marketplace solution that delivers internal talent mobility and workforce reskilling. You can download the research reports in their Global Talent Mobility Best Practice Research series at Fuel50.