The Difficulty of Hiring For Fit

team-115887_640Even though I managed a staffing department for several years, I have never liked recruiting. There’s too much marketing involved for my taste.

But I do believe in the importance of hiring for organizational fit. A good staffing process assesses the candidate against the job and the organization to make sure there is a fit, and also lets the candidate get a clear picture of the organization, so that the candidate makes an informed decision about accepting the job.

Laurie Glover, Contributing Writer for The Business Journals, posted a good article on April 2, entitled How to structure a search for the “right” employee.   Ms. Glover offers three strategies for hiring the right employee:

  • Look for someone who has the relevant skills and knowledge, not necessarily the most intelligent candidate,
  • Assess the candidate’s motivation, and
  • Select people who fit the culture of your organization.

Unfortunately, all three strategies are difficult to make happen during the “dating” that occurs during most selection processes.

  1. Skills v. Intelligence—Both Are Important

I disagree in part with Ms. Glover on the role of intelligence. She advocates not necessarily hiring the best and the brightest, but looking instead for someone with the skills and knowledge to do the job. Yet she also says that skills and knowledge can be fixed, implicitly diminishing their importance in the hiring process.

I agree with her to the extent that when she says not to hire “the best and the brightest,” she means not to focus on candidates cut from the usual mold—those who come from the best universities and have the same stellar resumes. It is important to have a diversity of perspectives within an organization. Hiring all your employees on the basis of their alma maters or GPAs can easily get you a cookie cutter approach to the job.

However, a wise man I once worked for told me, “The way to tackle a hairy problem is to throw a bunch of your best people at it. They’ll come up with a solution.” On another occasion, this same manager said, “It’s never a risk to hire someone smart.”

I took both pieces of advice to heart, and tried to hire people who were not only intelligent, but also had proven successes in their past. Doing so required that I look for more than “book smarts.” The “best people” have more than intelligence. They have the motivation and cultural savvy that Ms. Glover describes in her other two strategies.

  1. Motivation is Critical

I am in complete agreement with Ms. Glover that the best people are those who are independently motivated. As she states, you cannot motivate employees; they must motivate themselves.

All candidates will profess themselves to be self-motivated. It will probably take serious probing during interviews to find out how self-directed applicants have been in achieving results in their previous roles. Checking references is also important, as is reading between the lines, because prior managers may be reluctant to describe a former employee as unmotivated.

Look for candidates to display enthusiasm about earlier projects and to talk openly about why they liked their prior assignments.

  1. Success Requires Cultural Fit

conflictThe final strategy that Ms. Glover recommends is also critical to hiring a strong candidate.  I love the way Ms. Glover articulates the importance of cultural fit: “Can I stand them while they’re doing the job (and can they stand us)?” We have all worked with someone who had the requisite skills and abilities, but who absolutely rubbed us the wrong way.

Yet cultural fit is difficult to assess during the normal recruiting process. Both candidate and organization are typically on their best behavior. It takes strong interviewing skills to assess the “how” of a candidate’s past performance, as well as the “what” of the results achieved.

Moreover, there are times when it is important to bring in someone with new skills or a new way of thinking into an organization. When that is the case, it is very important to do so carefully. Some candidates will be too much of a shock to the organization, or will be ineffective because they cannot communicate with internal partners and customers. That balance—diversity of thought and perspective on one hand, and cultural fit on the other—is delicate.

Often, it will boil down to “can I stand this person for 40+ hours per week?”

What has been your experience in hiring for fit?



Filed under Diversity, Human Resources, Leadership, Management, Workplace

4 responses to “The Difficulty of Hiring For Fit

  1. Great post Sara. My organization is currently going through a ton of growth and doing a lot of work around organizational culture and a lot of work around aligning our hiring processes with our organizational values and culture.

    I’d love to hear (or read) more of your thoughts around one the final points you make in this blog post: the delicate balance of “hiring for fit” and also seeking to expand the organization’s diversity.

    My very un-scientific observations are that when an organization (or hiring managers within the organization) look to “hire for fit”, it often leads to hiring people who generally think like them… AND almost always *look* like them. Any words of wisdom when it comes to balancing organizational culture with the desire to increase the diversity of the workforce?

    (And by the way, just bought “Playing the Game”… looking forward to cracking it open!)

    • Brian,
      Thank you so much for buying my book! Please let me know how you like it.
      You raise a really good point about hiring for fit often meaning that leaders hire people who think and look like them. It’s a conundrum. I think resolving it requires getting beneath the surface—past the typical jargon and degrees and fraternities—to what people really value in the workplace and in how they approach their jobs. And, of course, a high degree of sensitivity to drawing out people who are not like us.
      Fit isn’t about the surface. It’s about what’s at the core. But getting there is a diversity issue.
      What do you think?
      Thanks. Sara

      • The idea of hiring for fit vs. diversity (which shouldn’t necessarily be an either/or but often turns out to be either/or) is such a sticky wicket. On one hand you have laws and legal protections (and the inherent fear of being slapped with an EEOC suit if you hire, realize you mis-hired, then fire someone in a protected class… which is often the pool of candidates that also bring diversity to a workplace).

        On the other hand, you have the well-intentioned theory of Affirmative Action (which may have a legal definition, but in practice means so many things to so many people).

        And on the third hand, you have the desire to not mis-hire (which breeds a lot of fear of hiring someone that’s too “different”).

        And I don’t have any bright ideas or great anecdotes to share that provide any clarity, but these are all the thoughts that ran through my mind as I read this post.

        What do you think? What makes for a courageous decision in hiring for diversity AND fit… and what makes for a reckless decision?

      • Brian, great thoughts all!
        It is a conundrum, and an example of where employment laws sometimes make people scared to do the courageous thing.

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