Case Studies

Assessing for Cultural Fit

When assessing individuals, much of the data derived from application forms, interviews, psychometrics, and assessment centre exercises addresses two key questions – what the candidate can do, and what he/she will do. But they offer little direct evidence of whether the candidate will fit with the culture of the organisation.

Our experience with clients has taught us that although a candidate can be technically gifted, with a well-adapted personality and an exceptional track record, they can still fail in the role. The cause of this is often lack of fit – they fundamentally do not get the culture of the business, and therefore do not thrive in the organisation. Establishing cultural fit, however, is not easy.

Professor Fincham and I have argued elsewhere* that: “Organisations are seen not as ‘like’ cultures or as ‘having’ a culture, but as being cultures. Culture is not an attribute; culture is what an organisation is”.

Organisational culture exists in a number of layers, from the most outward manifestations - the signs and symbols the organisation is recognised by (for example, its documentation, buildings, codes of dress) through to the deepest layer of its culture - the basic assumptions which may even operate at a subconscious level. For example, a culture might be about being looked after as an employee, which has its roots in childlike dependency upon a father or mother figure early in the organisation’s evolution.

When determining how we measure culture, it helps to think of culture as being defined by its values, the system of shared beliefs which drive behaviour and create the organisational way of life. Interestingly, the large scale studies of organisational culture we reviewed indicate that organisations tend to import values more than they create them. This finding is particularly important for businesses who do not want to dilute a culture which currently underpins high performance. In developing a productive workforce, identifying individuals who have values which fit the organisation’s culture is easier managerially than trying to change an individual's values in order to fit the culture, once in post. (Values can be highly resistant to change).

The largest study of organisational culture, a global project (known as Globe) statistically identified nine dimensions, including for example the extent to which the culture legitimises status differentials and avoids uncertainty through reliance on policy and process. Another very large scale study across many European businesses (Echelles de Culture Organizationalle), using powerful data reduction techniques to identify commonalities, identified five very broad underlying values which can be used to describe and meaningfully differentiate organisational cultures. These are support, commitment, productivity, rule orientation and the extent to which continuous learning is emphasised.

Whilst these models provide useful broad brush descriptions of the way culture varies at an aggregate level, we have found in practice that they fail to capture the key factors and granularity of particular organisational cultures. A better solution is to undertake a study to identify the specific characteristics of your organisational culture.

In a recent project we worked with a high performing business. The organisation was proud of its heritage of success, and this was clearly underpinned by a very particular organisational culture. This meant that gifted individuals who applied to work there could pass the can do/will do elements of the assessment process but still not thrive after joining.

Working closely with the business we constructed an on-line culture inventory which when completed, assesses a candidate against several statistically identified factors capturing the key elements of this organisation’s culture. This now provides the basis for the initial discussion of the ‘fit’ element of the assessment and helps identify those who, despite positive evidence on the can do/will do elements, may not actually work out well in practice.

This kind of cultural understanding and re-enforcement has helped preserve the core element of this business’s corporate DNA, even during the rapid growth that has followed its global success.

For more information on cultural fit please call Peter Rhodes on +44 (0)1903 214455

*Principles of Organizational Behaviour, Oxford University Press