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For years, finding employees who will be great “culture fits” has been the ongoing goal of many recruiting and leadership teams. This emphasis has been beneficial in many ways, particularly where it has helped organizations focus on bringing in people who they believe will not only do great work (the “what”), but who will do it in a positive manner that aligns with the rest of the organization’s culture (the “how”). However, the dark side of “culture fit” as a recruitment focus has been discussed more in recent years, and “culture add” has become a popular replacement for many teams. This article will explain why the concept of culture add is an improvement on culture fit and provide insight on how to hire based on this guideline.

What Is Culture Add?

The foundation of the culture add concept is an acknowledgement that an organization’s culture is not perfect. If the culture isn’t perfect, then it doesn’t make sense to hire people who are exactly the same as the existing employees and will do nothing to change and improve the culture.

This recognition leads to a recruiting strategy that relies on identifying gaps between the current culture and where it should be, then hiring people who will fill those gaps (as well as candidates who may help fill gaps that haven’t been recognized previously). Where recruiters and hiring managers historically have looked for people who will “fit in” with everyone else and help maintain the status quo, those focused on culture add look instead for people who will challenge the status quo in healthy ways and add a new dimension to the culture and performance of the organization.

The Differences Between Culture Add and Culture Fit

The primary difference between culture add and culture fit is that an emphasis on culture add involves proactively looking for people who will bring new insights, backgrounds, personality traits and other elements to the team or organization. Alternatively, culture fit proponents tend to focus on people who will jump into the organization and blend in as seamlessly and quickly as possible. Culture fit, as originally envisioned and in its best form, is about bringing in people whose overarching values align. However, that ideal shifted and went far beyond value alignment.

Why You Should Hire for Culture Add Instead of Culture Fit

The primary issue with culture fit as historically used is its tendency to lead an organization to hire only new employees who think, look and/or act the same as its existing employees. This is a problem for a variety of reasons, but hiring for culture add instead of culture fit enables an organization to benefit from the flip side of those issues, including the two core advantages listed below.

  • Improved business strategy. For the true business leader, this is likely the driving reason for focusing on culture add rather than culture fit. It is simply good business! When you only hire people who think in the same way and have the same ideas as everyone else in the building, you are unlikely to see much creativity or out-of-the-box thinking in your organization. This can lead you to stagnation and an inability to avoid groupthink to recognize new possibilities (or threats) and pivot as needed.
  • Diversity. Most organizations who have built their recruiting strategies around culture fit have not meant it to lead to issues of discrimination and bias. However, it is undeniable today that an emphasis on culture fit has led many to see prospective employees that fall outside of certain social groups, have unique professional and personal interests and even candidates that are of a different race, gender, religion or other legally protected group than the existing majority as being consistently “not a fit” for their organization. For example, some sales organizations that have built cultures around being hard-driving, uber-competitive, and hyper-masculine wind up with primarily male (and often primarily white) sales teams. This may or may not happen on purpose, but when most of an organization’s people seem to be cut out of the same cloth in a way that doesn’t align with the local population, you can often peg their concept of culture fit as the reason.

How To Start Hiring for Culture Add

Hiring for culture add will be a unique undertaking for every company. There are no set interview questions you can ask to identify whether a specific candidate is “a great culture add.” Rather, hiring for culture add depends on you as an organization or team being able to identify what is currently missing and go find it!

Train HR and Leaders

Everyone has heard and thought about culture fit for years. The idea of pivoting to think about culture add will feel unnecessary to some, semantic to others and potentially even dangerous or scary to a few! You may want to create and deliver culture add training for anyone involved in hiring new employees. Simply adding training is nowhere near a full solution, but it can be an important and helpful step in getting employees on the same new page.

Identify Essential Behaviors, Skills, Knowledge and Background for the Open Role

Hiring for culture add does not mean going into the hiring process by the seat of your pants and looking for someone strange and different. Rather, it should be a highly purposeful effort. Before inviting candidates to interview, everyone in the process needs to be clear and aligned on the skills, competencies, behaviors, knowledge and background that would make a great candidate from a culture add standpoint.

Evaluate the current make-up of the team and organization. Include what is missing or areas you think the existing group may be too similar in. Identify the non-negotiables that every employee must be aligned on no matter what (perhaps values such as “honesty” or “integrity”). Identify the non-negotiable skills, competencies, behaviors, knowledge and background that the individual must have in order to be successful in this particular role. Include those things that will fill existing gaps and make them expressly different from the others they work with.

Develop and Ask Structured Interview Questions

Once you know the core skills, competencies, behaviors, knowledge and/or background that you need the person in this role to have, write structured behavioral interview questions to find out about times when they have demonstrated those things.

For example, let’s say that you know the ideal person in this role will need to bring a willingness to push back and challenge the assumptions of team members because the existing employees are all too nice to one another and don’t challenge or improve upon ideas. An emphasis on culture fit would lead you to bring someone in who won’t stir up the waters and make everyone else uncomfortable. You might find yourself saying things like “Oh, he is so friendly! He’ll get along so well with Justin!” But instead, since you are focused on culture add, you could create an interview question such as “Tell us about a time when you had a different opinion on something important than the majority of people in a professional setting. What did you do?” Then rate the quality of the answer based on how willing they were to fight (appropriately) for a different idea in that setting.

What about the flip side? Let’s say the team around this new position is made up of employees who are all so analytical and perfectionistic that it feels like it takes an act of Congress to get anything accomplished. This one might be slightly trickier than the first example. How do you find someone who will add to the culture by helping the team move more quickly and take risks but do so in a way that doesn’t cause so much stress on the group that it breaks apart? Perhaps you can use a question like, “Tell us about a time when you took a risk on something at work. How did you decide to do it, how did it go and what did you learn from the experience?” This combination of questions should help you evaluate whether the candidate in question is willing to take risks in a professional setting, their method of determining whether a risk is worth it and their ability to learn from the experience. Rate the answer on whether the person will be capable of striking the right balance of moving fast while being analytical enough to work effectively with existing team members.

Use this method of designing behavioral interview questions to help you find candidates who embody those critical elements that fill gaps you’ve identified in the existing team. In addition, have culture add on your mind at all times so you can recognize if a candidate provides evidence of a trait, skill or personality that you had not planned on recruiting for but that you know could add to the team.

Questions You’ve Asked Us About Culture Add

This situation can come in many different forms, so it isn’t possible to give a blanket answer. That said, an example may help paint a useful picture.

Let’s say that you are down to two final candidates who are both strong options. They both check all the critical, required skill set and knowledge boxes. On top of that, the first candidate went to the same universities as several of their likely peers, has a similar professional background to other people who have been successful there in the past and their personality even reminds you of some of those co-workers. The other candidate checks the same important boxes but has a different type of background and personality that you don’t already see on the team. Perhaps they even have a personality that you worry may not blend perfectly with the rest of the existing group.

If you are looking for culture fit, you will consider the first candidate an obvious slam-dunk hire! In fact, if you do hire them, they will feel like the correct choice, and definitely the safe one — they’ll feel comfortable joining the team, be fully onboard quickly and do good work.

However, the culture add concept may tell you that the second candidate could actually be a wiser long-term option because of the unique insight and personality they will bring to the organization. It might be a bumpier experience than candidate one. New hires with a different personality than the rest of the group will go through growing pains and may have conflict with their teams more than the perfect culture fit would have. But purposefully selecting a highly qualified person who does things differently than the rest of your organization has the potential to be the best thing you ever do as a leader.

All of this, as has been mentioned, is under the assumption that the potential “culture add” candidate meets the minimum critical qualifications that you determined before the hiring process began. Everyone who gets to the final decision stage should have the skills and background needed to theoretically be successful in the role. Ideally, the decision maker’s job will be to select between multiple qualified candidates. In that case, use a culture add lens to help you think outside of your immediate, natural biases and give strong consideration to candidates who might feel like a slightly stranger fit than others.

Tyler is an HR professional-turned-career advisor. After earning a master’s in HR and an MBA, he completed several development rotations while working for a Fortune 100 financial services and insurance company. After gaining experience in HR project management, data and analytics, and as an HR business partner, he decided the right next move was a transition into higher ed and career services. He now provides career support for students in a top-ranked supply chain management program at a large Tier 1 university, but maintains a love for the field of HR and an interest in seeing HR professionals succeed and push the envelope!

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