The Culture Fit: To hire, or not to hire?

Published on: 05/21/24 1:08 PM


By our Account Director, Nina Smith.

Company culture – a term I’ve heard a million times, but not something I’ve taken the time to sit in until I joined MuddyWellies. Just a week in, I stumbled upon a Steven Bartlett post on ‘hiring for culture fit’ and immediately felt a disconnect. In his opinion, culture is “an invisible religion that a group of people operates under”, stressing the importance of creating “a culture that people can thrive in, and that remains as the constant”.

My immediate thought was, if you expect all your people to fit into the same unadaptable mould, how are you going to create a diverse and inclusive environment – one that embraces individuality and celebrates uniqueness? And should we really be comparing company culture to religion and belief systems? Within minutes I found myself down the rabbit hole, searching for the true definition of company culture and where it stems from.

If someone had asked me to define company culture when I started my career 3 years ago, I would have said something to do with ping pong tables or a dartboard in the office. These token efforts tell me nothing about the company’s goals – but it may tell me that, as people, they value having fun and therefore want their employees to feel like they can have fun at work. Or maybe I would have said it’s down to the personalities of the people you hire, and how they combine to create a culture that reflects them as a group, and so changes in waves.

After some more digging, I found myself circling back to Steven Bartlett’s ideas. If we look at a few definitions, your company culture should unite a set of values and attitudes that your people work under – a feeling that needs to be conscious and defined. If not, culture will form anyway, but this time it will be unstable (and more likely related to your Christmas party and early finish Friday). So, how do we build a strong culture, and if done well, where does it come from? How do we remain inclusive, and should it be adaptable or ever-changing?

Firstly, I think we can conclude that company culture shouldn’t solely stem from, or rely on, the individuals who work in your business. Because, if you’re not careful, you might end up with a team of people with different working styles and no clear direction. Plus, we know the importance of setting the culture tone properly, particularly if we look at any stats on Gen Z, a generation that wants to connect with the purpose and values of the organisation they work for, not just receive perks.

The strongest culture is going to stem from the leaders of the business as they set a precedent for everyone else – have a read of our latest piece on leading by example. By building a culture from the ground up, your leadership can ensure it’s felt in every corner of the business, that everyone is aligned, and the best talent joins, stays, and grows with you. This will always start with building out your purpose, mission, and values. Take Lego, for example, whose culture centres around imagination and learning, or Adidas who value competition and determination. Once those foundations – the DNA of your business – have been defined, the importance is placed on leading by example and communicating it properly to ensure buy-in from the wider team. From there, we can turn our attention to hiring on culture fit (alongside skills and experience, of course), ensuring your newbies align and resonate with the culture.

This is where I once again started to feel a bit confused. Hiring on culture fit makes perfect sense – you want them to fit in, and they ultimately want to fit in too. But this idea of creating a cohesive team under the same headings might sound like you’re going to hire the same person again and again, insinuating a pretty homogenous working environment lacking in diversity and uniqueness…

But could you have someone working at Lego who lacked imagination when it came to children’s toys? Or someone working at Adidas who didn’t care enough about its famous competitive rivalry with Nike? 

In this regard, I think there needs to be a lot of importance placed on hiring managers. This can help to avoid seeking out personal connections, avoid unconscious bias, and instead help you to find those aligned with your values. That’s when I came across something called “hiring for culture add”. It’s an idea that keeps company values at the heart of your recruitment process but also aims to highlight ways in which that individual may add or fill gaps in your organisation. Maybe your culture is modest and kind, and you’re faced with someone outspoken and outgoing – alongside having the skills and experience you need, they might ask more questions and continuously challenge things, ultimately helping your business to grow and your culture to evolve. What is certain, is that hiring based on good cultural alignment is going to create better job satisfaction and thus performance.

Lastly, I reflected on the idea of company culture remaining constant – something that’s immutable. I would hope that if an organisation pushed diversity and properly leveraged the skills and values from a range of backgrounds, its culture would end up evolving with time, with new perspectives and ideas – particularly with a culture-add approach. On the other hand, if the foundations of your culture are strong enough, and embody inclusive values, it won’t need to adapt with time and people at all. However, this feels far-fetched when thinking about how much our wants and needs can change – good examples being the working differences seen pre- and post-covid, or the remarkably different expectations of the younger generations joining the working world.

I think a good way to look at this is to compare a business in its start-up phase to its growth of say, 100 people. Where the former might enjoy a non-hierarchical collaborative culture, where initial innovation is key, the latter might feel a bit more like a small fish in a big pond and see big shifts in company goals. You’ll likely also notice a shift in the types of talent you attract at each of those stages of growth. I like to think this evolution is natural, as with growth there is change, and with change, there is hopefully even more growth. So, companies should look to continuously review their culture, values, and mission, to ensure they still align with their current goals – and the whole organisation must be involved in this feedback loop to make sure that alignment remains.

I’m not sure how many definitive conclusions I’ve made, and I look forward to coming back to these points in a few months to see if anything has changed. What’s for certain though, is that culture needs to be thoughtfully built, properly embedded – and so much more than offering perks and office parties. It should reflect the attitude of the business, how you aim to work together, and to what goal, because that’s how you ensure employee satisfaction and performance. And whilst culture fit should be a top priority for any hiring team, company culture shouldn’t diminish opportunities for growth and diversity. There’s always a chance to fill gaps and offer new perspectives that might help your organisation grow – your culture shouldn’t restrict you from adapting to new talent or hold you back from culture changes that the growth of your business might need.