The 4 C’s of Achieving a Workplace Culture Fit

There’s much talk in HR circles these days about the importance of culture fit. Companies not only want to hire employees with the skills to do the job, they also want employees whose personalities and passions align with the organization.

An eccentric, artistic employee who doesn’t like to follow the rules isn’t likely to be a good fit for a financial institution, but that same employee might be perfect for an advertising agency.

Fit matters. Unfortunately, sometimes despite their best efforts to hire employees who seem to represent a good potential culture fit, employers later discover that the employee is a mismatch for the organization. Mismatches may also occur due to a culture shift, including a:

  • Changing of the guard at the top of the organization;
  • Merger or acquisition, or
  • Concerted effort to change the organization’s culture to meet market needs or demands.

What steps should organizations, and their HR advisors, take if an existing employee just isn’t a good fit, or if the culture is shifting but an employee doesn’t seem able to shift with it?

Clarity. Communication. Conversation. Constructive Action.

First, organizations need to gain clarity around their desired culture. Too often culture is talked about but undefined. Or, there may be varying definitions of the culture and what it means at different levels of the organization.

The CEO may believe she is building a culture of the passionate pursuit of innovation through calculated risk-taking while employees on the front lines may believe the culture is one of risk-avoidance based on their managers’ responses when they may make a mistake.

A hospital may espouse a patient-centered culture, yet department leaders may be held accountable for tight cost controls leading to short lengths of stay and appointment times with providers. The remedy: clarity around culture from the top of the organization on down.

Next, leaders must clearly communicate the desired culture to staff at all levels of the organization. Importantly, this communication should include examples of what that culture looks like. It can be difficult for an employee to clearly understand what a “culture of exceptional customer service” looks like. Examples and stories about how staff have supported that culture can help.

For instance, a story in the company newsletter about a staff member who went above and beyond to ensure that a customer was provided with exceptional service. Examples shared at town hall and staff meetings of how employees have provided outstanding service also are useful, as are sharing testimonials and reviews from satisfied customers. All of these things can help employees understand exactly what is meant by “a culture of exceptional customer service.”

Conversely, employees must believe that the organization means what it says about the desired culture. Employees will be alert to instances when the espoused culture was not adhered to by managers and others, such as a manager who encourages employees to cut corners when providing service to customers, or a call center that measures employee effectiveness based on how many calls they can handle (instead of how well they meet callers’ needs, regardless of the length of time on the phone).

Another example that can harm morale is when employees who exhibit poor customer service are allowed to stay with the organization or, worse yet, are promoted into higher-level positions.

The search for culture fit begins during the hiring process, Robert Morlot, managing partner of Clearwater Business Advisers in Tampa, points out. Unfortunately, he says, too often hiring decisions are based not on organizational culture fit, but on hiring managers’ personal preferences. “We like to work with people who are just like us,” he says.

To help reduce this possibility, Morlot recommends defining cultural fit “in terms of business goals and what types of values, traits and behaviors actually predict on-the-job success.” This can help provide the clarity needed to ensure culture fit.

HR professionals, senior leaders and management also must be alert to instances when employees’ actions conflict with the desired culture. When this happens they need to have conversations with employees to raise their awareness that their behaviors are not a good culture fit. These conversations should include action plans and timeframes for the employee to adjust or change their behaviors. Some will. Some won’t. Some simply can’t.

What to Do When an Employee Doesn’t Fit

Clarity around culture is also a “must have” if tough decisions need to be made. As Mark Loverde, managing consultant with CultureIQ points out: “Taking action and discharging a person or limiting their opportunities based on something as poorly defined as ‘fit,’ rather than performance or behavior is a sure way to wind up in legal hot water unless you have a very clear definition of your required culture. That’s why fit is an essential requirement for the job, and what the performance expectations are for the culture.”

“As you reward and coach employees, everything should be done through the lens of whether or not they are performing, and are they doing so in a way that is consistent with the stated values,” says Loverde.

When tough decisions must be made, Loverde advises organizations to follow their performance management process. He concludes by noting that as an organization removes an individual from the business, it also must do so in way that is consistent with its culture.


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