Note: This “think piece” is part of a series of articles designed to expand your thinking about strategic HR.
What could be simpler than assessing “the fit” of a candidate? The goal of hiring for “fit” is to ensure that all employees have enough commonalities to allow them to work together as a unit. On the surface, it seems like a straightforward and logical goal, because why would you want to hire someone that doesn’t “fit”?
Well, you might be surprised to learn that in addition to its many positive impacts, assessing fit incorrectly could dramatically hurt your firm by reducing its diversity, innovation, and its speed of organizational change. Although almost everyone seems to be enthusiastic about the concept, I find that there is far too little research and focus on the problems or issues related to assessing and using “fit”. Despite its widespread use, I highly recommend that users first understand all of the many possible problems associated with it. This article is a result of years of research and analysis of the use and misuse of “fit”. Its sole purpose is to attempt to expand your thinking and perspective.
A list of the top 30 potential problems with assessing fit
The top potential issues, problems and concerns are split into eight categories. And within each category, the most impactful problem areas are listed first.
I) Limiting innovation and diverse thinking
- Reducing innovation – if the intense competition in your industry demands that your firm continually produce innovations, you’ll need to hire a significant number of innovators. Unfortunately, if you want innovators, you will need to hire some percentage of people that clearly “don’t fit”. Almost by definition, innovators are radically different than the average, so being different and “fitting in your corporate culture” are the antithesis of each other. The fact that they are different is easy to see because most innovators, game changers and certainly all “pioneers” come across dramatically different during interviews. They may look different, dress different, act different and they certainly may respond negatively when you probably explain “the way that you currently do things”.
- Limiting diverse thinking – diverse thinking means that your organization has a broad, expansive and diverse way that it thinks about and addresses problems and opportunities. In direct contrast, an excessive emphasis on fit can result in homogeneity. Having everyone that thinks the same and within the same boundaries, will limit the number of diverse approaches and ideas that can be generated.
- Reducing conflict may result in groupthink – one of the principles of fit assessment is that by achieving a consistent level of organizational fit, you can to ensure some degree of uniformity, while simultaneously minimizing conflicts. Unfortunately, minimizing conflicts may have negative impacts. Conflict may be a positive indication that different perspectives are being considered. If you can maintain higher levels of criticism, you may force individuals to rethink their positions. And if there’s too much uniformity, the probability of groupthink increases greatly.
II) Strategic issues related to fit
- A consistent corporate culture fit may be a problem in a fast-changing world – firms like Zappos and Southwest Air are justifiably famous for hiring individuals that clearly fit their current business model. But what if your business model were to change dramatically? In order to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances, literally everything would have to change, including the corporate culture and the type of employee that you will need. In these cases, if you didn’t dramatically change your “organizational fit profile” to accommodate the change in the business model, the people you hire would actually inhibit and reduce the speed of organizational change. In every organization, even recruiting for the narrower “job fit” has become increasingly difficult because as technology and processes are continually updated, the jobs that you are trying to “fit” are themselves in the process of continual change.
- The concept of “universal fit” across the organization isn’t realistic – at least a medium and large sized firms, the idea that every business unit and job needs the exact same “fit” is a mistake. For example, even if you have a corporate wide value of customer service, you would need that corporate “value” to be much stronger for employees working in customer service, than in the janitorial function, where employees never see people, no less customers. It could be a mistake to assume that managers and leaders, who guide others, would need the same level of fit as an average employee. Different levels of fit would also be more essential in critical functions and geographies.
- Should you replace employees that don’t fit? – most fit assessment occurs at time of hire. However that single assessment alone may be insufficient to maintain a workforce that “fits” the organization’s values. It’s no secret that people and even their values change significantly over time. So the question arises, “should you periodically reassess workforce fit, and then purposely weed out those that were mis-assessed during the recruiting process or that no longer fit, because they or the organization’s needs have changed. For example, Wendy’s recently began a complete workforce “reboot”, where every employee must re-interview to see if they fit the new “five-star athletes” requirement.
III) Recruiting related factors
- Generational issues – if you buy into the concept of generational differences, you already know that in as few as every six years, your available talent pool for your lower-level jobs will be from a new generation. Each new generation will be dominated by individuals with completely different interests, expectations and approaches. Unless you refuse to recruit from each new generation, you will be faced with wave after wave of potential new recruits that “do not fit” the values and the expectations of your current workforce. If your fit requirements during recruiting are too stringent, you’ll end up rejecting wave after wave of young people and recent college grads that have the needed skills but completely different values than your current employees.
- Recruiters and hiring managers may have a limited perspective – both recruiters and hiring managers often have a focus on filling “today’s immediate needs”. However, the organization may instead need “fit” assessed based on a “big picture” perspective and one that is focused on the firm’s “future” fit needs.
- Recruiters are not trained on fit assessment – it’s a fact that a large percentage of fit assessment is done by recruiters that may have no formal training on fit assessment and your firm’s definition of “fit”. To make matters worse, recruiters eliminate many candidates early in the process for their lack of fit, based only on what they see in resumes or a single phone interview. As a result, if recruiters get it wrong, hiring managers will never see a large number of top candidates that were mis-assessed by rushed and untrained recruiters.
- A strong fit message may harm your employer brand – organizations that publicly tout their tight fit requirements may be inadvertently sending a message to innovators, game changers, pioneers and creative types that your organization is not for them. This is because to creative people, a strong emphasis on fit means an overemphasis on consistency and sameness within the firm. With the growth of social media, this perception may be widely spread by many, whether you like it or not.
VI) Factors that may make fit less significant or impactful
- Fit is not productivity or an output – a primary goal of business leaders is to increase productivity. Unfortunately, fit (along with other emotional factors like engagement, employee satisfaction, emotional intelligence etc.) may contribute to productivity but they are not productivity. If you want to impress senior executives, you must prove “the cause and effect connection” between fit and productivity. Unfortunately, few even assert this connection, no less try to prove it. And focusing on fit alone may be a problem because an employee with the perfect set of values and commitment simply can’t be productive without the right tools, training and leadership.
- You may be able to develop fit factors after someone is hired – one of the reasons that you hire for fit is because there is an assumption that fit factors are deeply held beliefs and values that can’t be changed through training or on-the-job experience. In other words, if you need a value in an employee, you need to hire someone with that value. But what if fit factors can be developed and changed by the company? For example, most of the ten fit factors at Zappos appear like they can be changed (they include: deliver WOW through service, embrace and drive change, create fun and a little weirdness, pursue growth and learning, build a positive team and family spirit, and do more with less). It turns out that many of what Zappos calls “values” are really behaviors that can be developed. And even if an individual’s values are strongly held, there is plenty of evidence to show that even belief systems can be changed.
- You can perform extremely well without a perfect value fit – there is plenty of hard evidence from sports and entertainment that individuals can perform extremely well even without a value fit and an emotional tie to the organization. Professionalism, pride, the pay and job security may be powerful enough to get people to act the right way, even if the action is not perfectly consistent with their values.
- Fit may be only a minor factor in employee retention – one of the goals of fit assessment processes is to ensure that you hire people that fit, based on the premise that those that do not fit will soon quit (other fit goals might include more engagement/ commitment and productivity). This assumption that it drives retention would be flawed if you hire adaptable individuals that can learn to work under different constraints and belief systems. It is also true that other factors (outside of values) including pay, benefits, job security and great work may cause individuals to “stay” regardless of any value conflicts.
- Workforce fit may increase naturally through attrition – having a high percentage of your employees “fit” may not be the result of your fit process. Instead, over time, an organization’s fit numbers may improve simply because those that “do not fit” will leave the firm on their own.
- Fit assessment may not be used internally – using fit assessment exclusively during hiring may limit its impact. In order to maximize its impact, it needs to be utilized within the organization for internal movement, for promotions, for succession planning, during M&A and as part of leadership selection.
V) Measurement and the accuracy assessment
- Are interviews the best way to assess fit? – the most common way to assesses fit is through an interview (the other primary tool is a fit assessment instrument). Obviously even well-designed interviews can be subjective. It is also possible that interviews will screen out individuals that hold the right values but that are not good at expressing their values under the pressure of an interview. It is also likely that applicants will consciously attempt to give the “correct answers” that reflect the values that they read on the firm’s website. And finally, if interviewers are not formally trained and experienced in how to assess fit, a high percentage of mis-assessments are likely. As a result, any fit assessment process that relies on interviews needs to be periodically statistically checked for validity and reliability.
- Providing interviewers with the right factors and answers –if interviewers are not provided upfront with the expected fit factors (i.e. values, temperament, team orientation, level of aggressiveness etc.) they may be forced to “make up” their own list of fit factors. But even if the interviewers are provided with the right fit factors, if interviewers are not also provided with the correct “answers” to each one, they will be forced to make their own subjective interpretation of an acceptable answer. That means that they will have to decide on their own what actions, behaviors and responses accurately demonstrate a candidate’s fit on a particular factor. If you don’t provide both clear factors and correct answers, you can’t have a reliable measure.
- No agreement on what is a passing fit score – most fit assessments are pass or fail and that is probably because assessors are allowed to utilize their own criteria. Without consistency across all evaluators, there can be no agreement on what is a minimum passing score. Without a defined passing score, some individuals that would fail the fit assessment under one interviewer would pass under another. Because the final assessment score does not include a numerical or percentage rating, there is no way to easily compare candidate’s side-by-side, based on the numbers.
- A psychologist may be required– if you are conducting assessment interviews, you must recognize that identifying and assessing emotional states (most fit factors are values or personality traits) may require a professional psychologist. Even with sufficient training, it may not be possible for managers and recruiters to “look into the candidate’s brain” to assess their level of values and commitment.
- No periodic validation – few organizations conduct precise validity and reliability studies on the fit assessment process. And in addition, without periodic “spot checks”, you can never know the assessment accuracy of individual recruiters and hiring managers.
- It may only take one negative assessment to get a candidate rejected – in most cases, no single individual is assigned to assess fit. As a result, every interviewer may attempt to make their own assessment. This coupled with the fact that many selection processes are “looking for excuse” to reject individuals (in order to narrow down the list), may mean that if one assessor determines that a candidate is not fit, they may be rejected, even though all others gave them a passing score.
VI) Potential legal issues
- Legal issues related to diversity – if your organization is under legal requirements to hire and maintain a diverse workforce, you must by definition have a mixed workforce. Obviously hiring and retention programs that are too stringent could result in a homogeneous workforce. And if managers inadvertently use inappropriate fit factors like age, national origin, race or sex, you will definitely face legal issues.
- Legal issues related to hiring – regardless of whether the candidate is a protected group, fit assessment is a “test” under EEOC guidelines because it can cause an applicant to be rejected. Unless you’re legal counsel has reviewed your fit assessment process, you may be in serious legal jeopardy.
VII) Definitional and ethical issues
- An unclear or changing definition – even I/O psychologists acknowledge that “fit” is a term that is hard to define|. Most practitioners use the “I’ll know it when I see it” approach. As a result, every individual involved in assessing fit might have their own definition of fit and the factors that make it up. Taken together, this inconsistency may make the results meaningless. Only a handful of companies provide recruiters and hiring managers with a written definition, a list of fit factors and the answers that are required to get a passing score on each.
- The multiple types of fit can lead to confusion – beyond an unclear definition, when people speak of fit they need to realize that there are numerous “types” of fit that can be assessed. The first category (which focuses on skills and work styles) includes “job fit”, “team fit” or a “fit to their manager”. The second category of fit (which focuses on values, beliefs, attitudes and personality traits) includes the most common type, organizational/cultural fit but it also includes business unit fit and geographic fit.
- Ethical issues related to assessing someone’s beliefs – many cultural fit assessments focus on examining an individual’s belief /value system in order to determine if a potential employee shares the same goals and values as the organization. Evaluating anyone’s belief system can be highly intrusive. Even attempting to do this may be unethical and it may even be potentially damaging to the individual if they are rejected because of it.
VIII) Administrative issues
- The ROI maybe low – even if fit assessment only takes 5 minutes during each interview, the cumulative amount of time among many interviews may mean that the costs of assessment outweighs the benefits. This is especially true if you can’t show a cause-and-effect relationship between fit and performance, engagement or retention.
- Even if you have no formal program, managers may do it on their own – because individual hiring managers may be believers in fit assessment, they may be doing it without anyone being aware. This, like any “underground” assessment technique, can allow problems to fester without HR’s knowledge.
- No one is in charge of it – in most organizations, who “owns” and is in charge of fit assessment is not crystal clear. Without clear authority, power and the coordination that goes with it, you are less likely to get accurate fit assessment across the organization.
By the way, some organizations deliberately seek out that those that” don’t fit”
Although many companies embrace organizational fit, others have gone in the other direction. IBM for example developed its “wild ducks,” concept to ensure that they were purposely hiring people that didn’t fit. Yahoo created it isolated Brickhouse specifically to keep its innovators from interacting with corporate types. Jack Welch did something similar at GE when he required senior executives to have a (usually younger) technology geek as a mentor in order to “push” these executives into using more and understanding technology.
Although “fit assessment processes” are clearly in widespread use, their actual business impact is often lessened by the fact that those running them and those that provide vendor services have not done their due diligence in identifying and solving the many potential problems that have been presented here. Both my research and my experience with corporate leaders have shown me that fit assessment processes have potential. However, many that have a financial stake all-too-often defend it from a Pollyanna perspective. I have found that if you expect to become a true business partner, a superior approach is a data-based one, which continually critically assesses and improves every component of the fit process.