Can cultural fit trump qualifications?

By Huw Martin

The issue of cultural fit versus job fit is one that comes up regularly in discussions with clients. I have been thinking a lot about it recently, and came across an interesting article that appeared in Bloomberg Businessweek back in January 2013 called “Job Applicants’ Cultural Fit Can Trump Qualifications.”. Yes, I am a bit behind with my reading, but bear with me because this is important.

While I agree with the idea that cultural fit can trump qualifications in the hiring process I am less comfortable with the articles description and definition of culture and cultural fit. In fact I would go as far as to say it angers me. The article points to research carried out by the employment site Glassdoor which collected 285,000 questions asked by hiring managers, and the following four rank among 2012’s 50 most common:

•  What’s your favourite movie? Mine is The Usual Suspects

•  What’s your favourite website? Twitter!

•  What’s the last book you read for fun? John Grisham’s The Confession

•  What makes you uncomfortable? I’d say overconfidence

The problem is that questions like these don’t really test for culture fit at all, propagating a narrow, superficial idea of company culture. This is dangerous territory.

Cultural fit is about far more than just individual preferences. It is about shared values, principles and missions; and this goes way beyond whether you prefer Star Wars or Star Trek. A company’s values and principles are more than what was written down following the management meeting to write them up. A company’s values and principles are borne out of their beliefs, their actions, and by the decisions they make every day – in particular, the tough decisions, where values and money collide.


Far from being a good thing, these types of questions can negatively reinforce the hiring of people all cut from the same mould. Diversity is important in the workplace: diversity of thinking, experience, culture, age but not diversity in values, beliefs and principles. We will not hire someone no matter how ‘amazing’ they are if they don’t share our deep beliefs about the things that matter.

Do we all need to be friends?

Culture fit also doesn’t mean we are all best pals. In fact, it’s far from it.

As with all relationships in life, there must be tension in the workplace to keep things progressing forward. It is however a delicate balance. If someone is causing too much tension or not enough tension then they are not the correct people to be around.

Use shock value to build a cult-like culture

There are many ways to define a company’s culture but Ben Horowitz in his new book The Hard Thing About Hard Things takes a unique approach to culture.

He cites the example of Jeff Bezos at Amazon requiring all desks be constructed out of Home Depot doors – even at its current multi-billion dollar valuation. Rather than pay lip service to frugality, Bezos decided to institute a stark visual example of the company’s mission to deliver value to customers.

In comparison, Jack Dorsey will never make his own desks out of doors at Square because at Square, beautiful design trumps frugality. When you walk into Square, you can feel how seriously they take design.


At his own VC firm Horowitz also shocks his own staff into behaviour change.

When Horowitz started his company with his business partner Marc Andreessen, they wanted the firm to treat entrepreneurs with great respect. So much so that being late for a meeting was deemed as unacceptable. They strictly enforced a “$10 per minute” rule – for every minute our people were late for a meeting, they were expected to pay a fine of, you guessed it, $10 per minute.

So, you are on a really important call and will be 10 minutes late? No problem, just bring $100 to the meeting and pay your fine. When new employees come on, they find this shocking, which gives us a great opportunity to explain in detail why we respect entrepreneurs. If you don’t think entrepreneurs are more important than Venture Capitalists, we can’t use you at Andreessen Horowitz.”

These actions send a very clear cultural signal to employees that jump starts the cultural change required. That’s programming your culture.

Culture and cultural fit matters

Everything from your customer service and branding are simply lagging indicators of your real brand. If you get the culture everything else flows from here. It is our job as business leaders to protect and drive the company culture through the hiring, development and retention of all employees.

The question then becomes not ‘can cultural fit trump qualifications?’‘ but ‘are you willing to stand by your common culture even in the face of potential pain and discomfort?’

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