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How to hire for cultural fit at your nonprofit organization

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The process of hiring and onboarding new employees is an important and costly one for any organization, and finding someone who is a great fit for your organization is always the goal. Increasingly, nonprofit (and for-profit) organizations are including questions about “cultural fit” in their hiring process.

What is ‘cultural fit’ and why is it important?

Organizational psychology expert Adrian Furnham defines cultural fit as “congruence between the norms and values of the organization and those of the person.”

Many recent studies have shown that employees who fit well within their organization have greater job satisfaction, superior job performance and productivity, better mental and physical health and are more likely to remain within the organization.

With clear evidence that cultural fit is important, hiring managers are increasingly asking questions of candidates that attempt to understand the whole person, in an effort to determine their cultural fit with the organization.

Beware these dangers

Like any type of assessment, however, there are dangers to pursuing cultural fit. Cultural fit is often misunderstood as personal compatibility or similarity to the hiring manager and/or other members of the organization’s staff.

Northwestern University professor Lauren Rivera studied the hiring process and concluded that organizations are making hiring decisions “in a manner more closely resembling the choice of friends or romantic partners.” Questions about hobbies and favourite movies are increasingly being asked by hiring managers; answers to such questions do reveal a candidate’s personality but have little to do with the candidate’s ability to do the job.

Rivera’s studies also revealed that when hiring managers approach the hiring process with questions about compatibility, they often chose more seemingly compatible candidates over more skilled candidates.

The other hazard to hiring for compatibility is that of groupthink: a team of very similar personalities may very much enjoy working together, but fail to challenge one another or even get their work accomplished because they share the same weaknesses.

Worse, “a lot of times, cultural fit is used as an excuse” says Eric Peterson, manager of diversity and inclusion at the Society for Human Resources and Management. If a hiring manager or interviewer does not feel entirely comfortable with a a diverse group of candidates, poor cultural fit is often used as the excuse.

Cultural fit starts from within

James Temple, Chief Corporate Responsibility Officer at PwC Canada, believes that hiring well begins within the organization. “Hiring managers need to recognize that they are brand ambassadors for their organization. They need to be able to understand, articulate and share knowledge about the organization’s purpose, vision, mission and values at every stage of the hiring process.” [NOTE: For more information on how to communicate your organization’s culture to prospective staff check out this article.]

Temple also advises that hiring managers should keep professional development top of mind, much as nonprofit boards do, to understand better how to continually improve their hiring practices. “If you keep hiring the same kind of people in the same kind of way in hopes that things will improve, it won’t. You need a diversity of thought to strengthen your organization’s capabilities – including your own.”

One key aspect of professional development involves helping hiring managers become aware of their blind spots, their unconscious biases. Tana Turner, principal of the Turner Consulting Group, recently met with a nonprofit hiring manager who was developing an advertisement for a position. When Turner reviewed the ad, she noted several descriptors that seemed innocuous to the hiring manager but that were actually culturally biased and could affect who might apply for the role.

Poorly developed job ads can also eliminate excellent candidates simply because potential applicants don’t recognize their fit with the organization. Temple believes it is vital to think about the talent pipeline and what candidates are looking for. In PwC’s recent Millenial’s at Work Survey, findings suggested that 60% of millennials want to work for an organization that shares their values.

Edwin Jansen, head of marketing for recruiting software company Fitzii agrees: “The goal of a job ad is to speak to the ideal candidate and convince them to apply. Often, however, ads are written in stuffy language describing the minutiae of the job. I always remind nonprofits that their best asset is their mission, followed by their culture and working environment. Write your job ads as advertisements with this in mind.”

Structure your hiring process

Heightened awareness about the organization’s culture is an important step to hiring well but it’s also critical to use a structured, unbiased process to a key to hiring someone who is a good fit while not unnecessarily excluding non-traditional candidates.

Turner suggests “When assessing resumes, don’t look at names or gender. Hiring managers tend to make judgments about fit based on names. If someone has a foreign-sounding name, it might be assumed they don’t speak English well. If a man applies for a traditionally female-dominated role, it might be assumed that they are a less qualified candidate.” This approach, she says, will lead to surprises in interviews, which can help identify people who are actually a good fit for the job and the organization, rather than jumping prematurely to conclusions based on superficial information.

Ian Yates, Managing Director of Fitzii, notes that he used to use unstructured, conversational styles of interviewing but that this was ultimately ineffective: behavioural questions that relate to a candidate’s past experience have been proven to be nine times as effective as unstructured interviews. “Developing a set of structured, behavioural questions ahead of time as well as a scoring system prevents a hiring manager from simply focusing on the candidates they like.” He adds that past experiences are the best predictor of how a candidate will behave in the future and the candidate’s fit within their role; he suggests that 80% of questions in an interview should be behavioural rather than theoretical or hypothetical.

Jansen adds,” If you don’t structure your hiring process and use tools to assess fit, you’ll find someone you’d like to have a coffee with but they might not be a good fundraiser, for instance.”

But what about my gut feeling?

Many hiring managers rely on their intuition in a hiring process but as Turner says, “A gut feeling is based on a collection of bad experiences. It isn’t absolute truth.” She notes that a candidate who reminds a hiring manager of a former romantic partner or someone with whom the interviewer had a bad experience can suffer based on the hiring manager’s own issues. “If you use a well-structured hiring process, you can get as close to an objective assessment as possible.”

Use the right tools to find the right person

With an increasing number of people wanting to find meaningful work in the nonprofit sector, most job ads on CharityVillage receive a large number of responses. The challenge is sifting through the pile — which often includes applications from what Jansen calls “resume bombers” who apply to every possible job — to find the best candidates.

The art of finding the best candidate is even more difficult because a hiring manager needs to simultaneously exclude candidates while also remaining inclusive so that candidates aren't eliminated due to bias or other factors unrelated to their ability to do the job. Studies have shown that resumes are one of the worst ways to assess potential candidates. They are also usually the most cost-effective. Fitzii developed a predictive assessment within its software to allow nonprofits and other organizations to more effectively and cost-effectively assess candidates.

Fitzii’s software allows organizations to have each candidate fill out a short tailored psychometric personality assessment and a workplace culture assessment in which they describe the sort of workplace culture and environment they prefer. Yates says Fitzii’s testing is not simply ipsative (describing the individual’s personal style) but normative: candidates can respond more precisely by describing the degree to which any personality trait describes them. Fitzii’s software weights the candidate’s qualifications as the primary consideration but also allows organizations to evaluate the candidate’s answers to determine their fit in terms of skills, experience and cultural fit, comparing the candidate’s answers to an objective measure of what is required to do the job well. Studies undertaken by organizations that have used the normative psychometric assessment show they achieved double the four-year retention rate for their industry.

But what about chemistry and passion?

Yates says that chemistry matters but fit is far more than just chemistry. Temple, whose organization is committed to inclusion, diversity and hiring based on objectivity, uses group interviews to simulate workplace scenarios when hiring CPA students to see how they work together as a team - but only once they have determined candidates who are technically qualified for the role.

Jansen says people are good at figuring out chemistry. “The problem is that they are doing this with candidates who aren’t a fit for the organization and the task.”

Turner suggests that the best way to assess a candidate’s passion is to include interview questions about their commitment to and experience with the cause. This allows the evaluation to be an objective assessment of the individual’s fit with the organization’s mission, rather than simply a measure of their enthusiasm and idealism. She also notes that it is important to consider how important passion is to each individual role: “Commitment to a cause and knowledge about it is more important in an outward-facing role such as fundraising or community engagement than it is in a role like IT or accounting. You don’t want to hire someone in any role who dismisses your organization’s goals but you need to balance how important that is in each particular role.”

As Temple says, “There’s an art, a science and a methodological approach to hiring the best talent. You need to use all of these approaches when hiring. You also need to keep your biases and blind spots in check.” Jansen adds, “The difference between hiring a good employee and a great employee is significant.” Spending the time and money to understand your own organization and to accurately evaluate your candidates for a good fit while avoiding bias and discrimination might sound like a costly and lengthy process but it’s actually often a case of working smarter rather than harder — and getting great employees as a result.

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organization tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

Photos (from top) via iStock.com. All photos used with permission.

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sharrontimmins@gmail.com sharrontimmins@gmail.com
The Universe must be at work with me as this posting was just what I needed to read today! I certainly appreciated reading your comments about the dangers of 'cultural fit'. I'm 99.9% sure the misunderstanding of what that really means, is what cost me my job recently. Being a 'round peg in a square hole' can, indeed, be an asset to an organization! Unfortunately, many organizations are a long way off from seeing it that way, thinking the cookie-cutter employee is the best fit. What a loss!
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