You’ll see it all around you – on job descriptions, websites, and you’ll hear about it in feedback from interviews. It is now perceived as one of the most essential job interview assessment criteria and yet it is the hardest, if not most seemingly impossible aspect of the hiring process to prepare for.
We’re talking about ‘cultural fit’, that omnipresent phrase that nevertheless remains an opaque and nebulous term to most. What does it mean? And can you prepare for it?
What is Cultural Fit?
On a very basic level, many people see ‘cultural fit’ as being about personality. The analogy goes along the lines of reclusive wallflowers being less likely to enjoy a firm where the staff are encouraged and expected to be lively and loud in the office with each other, or conversely someone used to working in shorts and a t-shirt on flexi-hours not fitting into a nine-to-five suited and booted culture. However, this very basic assumption leads to a kind of hiring echo-chamber, where the firm looks to hire people who look and sound like the people already there and often boils down to whether the interviewer can see themselves becoming friends with the interviewee.
But there are sound functional considerations as well – so a less simplified example might be where you are a Technology Transformation Director with strong experience in cutting staff and outsourcing, you may not be received well at a firm that has a large and long-serving technology team and are proud of their own in-house development function. However, it may be true that the board of the firm is trying to change the culture, cut costs and increase efficiency – in which case not being a fit to the current culture might be positive in their eyes. Using culture fit as part of the assessment criteria in these situations would be a legitimate exercise.
So really, it is about the way the company goes about its business and its self-perception, and whether your way of going about business and how you see the firm are aligned. And if not, how likely you are to find that alignment with the firm going forwards.
How to prepare for Cultural Fit?
1. Research the firm
Throughout all our guidance, we can never stress this one piece of advice often enough. Do your background research into the firm – not only about what the firm does, but also about the ‘culture’. Some of this can be gleaned from what the firm says about themselves on the website and from news coverage, but also take a look at their social media feeds and their LinkedIn profiles. It’s certainly worth trying to connect/network with people at the firm – to get a real opinion of what it’s like to work there outside of the hiring sales pitch. And of course, speak to your recruiter. They will have been briefed on the culture by the hiring team and will likely have been given some examples of social activities and events that take place. They are your broker for the job, so they will also want to make sure the fit is a good one.
2. Do you fit your research?
Now it’s crunch time. Once armed with the information from your research, you can make an assessment as to whether the firm is right for you. Be honest with yourself. What types of people are the firm hiring? Do they have a huge amount of process driven work and are looking for people who are good at knuckling down and crunching the numbers? Or are they an entrepreneurial firm looking for people to continually ‘rock the boat’ with new ideas and work in a less orthodox fashion? Sometimes your research may surprise you. Don’t be afraid to walk away from something that doesn’t feel right for you, just because everyone around you dreams of working there, and up until this point, so have you. However, if you’ve gathered all the information and it has just made you more excited, then it’s time to get ready for the interview.
3. Enthusiasm for the firm
Companies want to hire people who believe in what they do and are excited by the chance to be part of it. If you go into an interview tired after a long night out, expecting your technical qualifications to speak for themselves, and then talking about a pay rise, then you’ve taken the wrong approach. Those who can demonstrate knowledge of the firm - and can give examples of the firm’s work that excited them - are much more likely to get hired and be seen as a ‘cultural fit’. In addition, work the candidate has undertaken and they can speak enthusiastically about, that matches the types of work the firm does, also gives the impression of a good match. This is especially true where this leads to a conversation with the interviewer about the problems you faced and where you’re both comparing notes – building common understanding and a rapport between the interviewer and the candidate. Come to the interview armed with good questions about the work and the firm – this shows that you’re keen to find the match from your end as well.
However, a word of caution here. We’re talking about controlled enthusiasm, where you’re clearly keen to join and get involved with the work, but you can talk about it logically and fluidly. Coming across as gushing and over-excited can have the opposite effect to what you want.
4. Communication, adaptation
Be sure to highlight soft skills – as these are usually the litmus test of cultural fit. Give examples of where you have communicated well and been part of well-functioning teams. Talk about personal achievement, but always add the context of the team and how they helped you and you helped them. Talk about difficulties and how you overcame them, and talk about leaning from mistakes, and researching into how to overcome obstacles. All these things give the interviewer an impression that you play well in groups and have a positive impact to move projects forward. Even if you didn’t tick all the previous culture-fit boxes for them, an ability to adapt can be a powerful tool to override this.
5. Assess again post-interview
Again, now is the decision time. Did you get the right impression from the interview or have you been left with more questions? You may have had your expectations confirmed and be eager to hear back from the firm. Or you may have doubts to whether what was on paper met with the reality of the interview.
Culture fit can have a negative side. It is fair to say that the term has become something of a default phrase when a firm doesn’t want to give their full reasons for negative feedback – a catch-all for the non-technical reasons they don’t want to give you the job. Maybe the interviewer simply didn’t like you. This is always a possibility and not a decision you can overturn. But hopefully, armed with the preparation above, you can make your best attempt to connect with the interviewer and demonstrate your desire to work there, that you understand the firm and you share commonalities with the people who work there. If, after all that, there is nebulous feedback regarding culture fit, then it’s really not the right place for you and you’ve avoided a disappointing job.