When I decided to tackle the topic of tangible and intangible requirements in talent sourcing at tru Tel Aviv this year, I was expecting recruiters to mention culture as one of the intangibles. And of course they did.
Organisational culture was the topic of my first presentation at an international event (Sourcing Summit 2015) and the truth is not much has changed since in how we talk about it. Some of us have of course moved from talking about culture fit to glyrifying culture add, but I would argue this only shows our deep lack of understanding the subject altogether.
Many recruiters and HR specialists seem to believe that the very notion of culture is intangible. It can’t be defined or described – they claim. No wonder then that “lack of culture fit” is used as an excuse to reject candidates rather than meaningful feedback.
But, despite this widespread opinion, culture can in fact be defined, as well as organisational culture. I personally continue to find this definition most useful:
(…) culture is a way we solve problems and reconcile dilemmas.
„Riding the waves of culture” by Fons Trompenaars & Charles Hampden-Turner
Understanding this definition of culture is all you need to see the value of culture fit. Culture fit isn’t a threat to diversity, as the way employees solve their personal problems doesn’t really have much to do with organisational culture. In fact, a very diverse group of people can create an organisation with a strong culture. All they need is to agree on how certain professional problems and dilemmas should be handled.
Let’s look at an example to understand how this works: an IT company is looking to hire a developer. A candidate applies but his previous application, submitted 3 moths earlier, had been rejected. The recruiter feels like this time, the candidate’s profile is perfect for the role, but the rules say candidates cannot be considered for a role with the company for 6 months following a rejection.
Should the recruiter put the candidate’s profile forward?
You may have a strong preference here, but in reality there is no right or wrong answer to this question. It all depends on the company culture – in this particular case on whether is values universalism (rules) or particularism (relationships) more. If the recruiter themselves are a culture fit for the company, they will be able to make the right desicion without having to consult anyone. This makes employees feel more comfortable and saves the organisations time.
One of the big misunderstandings when it comes to organisational culture is that you can describe it by mentioning what values are important to the company. But in order to get the description right, we must dig deeper, to the inner layer of culture.
This idea of culture having different layers is quite common and we find it in the book I already mentioned, Riding the waves of culture. The outer layer of culture is what’s visible to the eye, the cultural artifacts. That’s your foosball table, your suit and tie, the way employees hang out together after work and the language they use when talking to your clients.
All of the above is defined by the mid layer of culture, the norms and values. Let’s assume your company values professionalism – it may impact the way your employees dress (this is the outer layer, visible to the eye). When you visit a bank, for example, you may expect the bank employees to be wearing suits.
Finally the third, inner layer is culture is basic assumptions. They’re implicit and sometimes even completely subconscious, but they define the way we understand the cultural values. So if you questionned why professionalism had to mean wearing a suit – you may simply be operating on different basic assumptions than people who work in banks.
But if we can’t use values to describe culture, does that mean it can’t be done?
Let’s not give up – despite how complex culture is, you don’t necessarily need a degree in the matter to describe your own company culture. You will however need to know where to look and what questions to ask.
What you want to look at is what behaviours are encouraged and rewarded, and what behaviours are discouraged and punished. But don’t look at company manuals for these! Take a walk around the office, observe and talk to people.
I once worked for an organisation that valued being brave. I was very shy back then and struggled to talk in front of my colleagues, but once in a team meeting I decided to be brave and asked our manager a difficult question. It turned out the manager had a very different understanding of what “brave” meant and I got told off for what I did. I was also instructed not to ask questions in front of the team ever again.
This is a perfect example of why you need culture fit! I was a good employee (I hit all of my targets, anyway), but I struggled to make decisions my managers would be happy with. I wasn’t doing this deliberately, I valued the same ideas my company put up on the wall! I just happened to understand them differently.
So the next time you try to describe your company culture, think about these situations. Someone who technically has all the skills to succeed at the company, but failing to make the right decisions over and over again. Or the opposite – someone who isn’t necessarily the most skilled employee but who keeps getting praise for the decisions they make. Confront what you know about these situations with the values your company uses to describe the culture and you come up with a pretty good idea of what the organisational culture really is.
The situations you examine can also be a great way of explaining your culture to employees and candidates alike. Storytelling can be extremely useful – have a look at Made to stick by Chip and Dan Heath to learn more about it.