This article was written by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic from Forbes and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In recent years, culture-fit has become a bit of a fetish in HR circles, to the point that even organizations who proudly advocate for diversity and inclusion (D&I) interventions have no trouble admitting that they hire on culture-fit - a notion that is fully incompatible with D&I.
While it is tempting to assume that a person's "fit" with the culture of an organization plays a critical role in shaping her engagement, wellbeing, and performance, it is always healthy to challenge our assumptions with data, and there is generally no better data than scientific studies (rigorous, independent, academic research published in peer-reviewed journals).
So, what does the science actually say?
Let's start with the good news: there is a well-established body of research, dating back more than 60-years, on the causes and consequences of aligning people's skills, values, and personality to those of the job, career, or organization. As usual, academics use a different term for this - not suitable for market-friendly and punchy HR circles - namely person-environment fit, and even before that, one of the oldest mantras in Industrial-Organizational Psychology stated that behavior is always a function of the person and the situation. So, when both are aligned, you can expect positive outcomes.
Now onto the less good news, at least for those who champion the culture-fit hypothesis...
(1) To this date, no representative scientific study has provided robust evidence for the idea that "culture-fit" has incremental validity in the prediction of job performance (or even job satisfaction) over and above individual's values, abilities, or personalities, or the culture of an organization on its own. This means that you will gain very little from predicting how people feel about their job or perform in their job, from the actual interaction of their personal characteristics and those of the culture they are in, over and above what you can predict from either individual or organizational features alone.
(2) Most organizations don't know what their culture is. The best indicators come from climate surveys (engagement data), since they crowdsource how employees "perceive" their culture. However, when leaders proudly confess that they hire for culture-fit they are typically referring to the culture they see, which is the culture they "wish" they had. This is why most organizations describe themselves as "diverse", "innovative" "pro-ESG", and "results-oriented", but their employees tend to have a very different picture of their culture.
(3) In practice, organizations are at best good at evaluating the "person" part of P-E-fit (or culture-fit), at least when they use science-based assessments, unbiased indicators of past performance, and well-designed structured interviews. Regarding culture, they typically rely on improvised, subjective, and unreliable "models" of who they are, which means that in most instances 50% of the equation (i.e., "culture"), is unreliably assessed. Needless to say, when organizations rely on their anecdotal or subjective impressions of culture as a mirror of historical high performers, they will propagate the status-quo, and with it optimize for candidates that fit the profile of the privileged in-group, harming minorities' access to the top.
So, despite the individual richness and diversity that exists between organizations, certain attributes of talent tend to generalize rather well. For example, if you hire fast learners with social skills and drive, you can expect them to do well in pretty much any culture. Granted, this doesn't mean they will "fit in" or be happy, but surely it's the job of managers and leaders to ensure that talented individuals and potential high-performers can be motivated at work, especially when they don't just replicate the values, interests, or background of the incumbents.
Therefore, if organizations want to increase the representation of talented people while enriching - rather than hampering - diversity, they should just focus on talent, and the key ingredients of human potential, allowing for a wide range of interests, values, and beliefs to fluctuate in their recruits. Contrary to popular belief, this will not hinder, but enrich the culture of the organizations.
This also implies that a company's apparent "misfits" could be its greatest asset. Culture is always changing, but in order to evolve, you need to bring people who bring something new to the table, and have the power to upgrade and evolve the culture of their organization. Alternatively, you will just perpetuate the status-quo and create not a rich and diverse culture, but a cult.