The Recruiting Dilemma: Do You Look for Cultural Fit, or for Innovation?

“The world hates change, yet it is the only thing that has brought progress.” — Charles Kettering

There’s been a lot written lately about “cultural fit.” In fact, you could say that cultural fit is the latest rage in talent acquisition.

In an article in the American Sociological Review, Northwestern Professor Lauren Rivera concludes that companies are making hiring decisions today “in a manner more closely resembling the choice of friends or romantic partners.”

The 4 most asked interview questions

Glassdoor collected 285,000 questions asked by hiring managers. In 2012, the following were the top four asked. Note that they have nothing to do with skills, accomplishments or experience.

  1. What’s your favorite movie?
  2. What’s your favorite website?
  3. What’s the last book you read for fun?
  4. What makes you uncomfortable?

Cultural fit is important, but I would propose that it has its limits.

Here is a case where cultural fit is carried to the extreme. A manager says the best way to get cultural fit is:

Hire lots of relatively inexperienced people. You can indoctrinate people who grow up in your culture more easily than people who grew up in someone else’s company culture. Inexperienced people make up for inexperience with enthusiasm, and often don’t have much of a life.”

Sounds like brainwashing to me!

Most important factors for success

Lets look at a very important attribute that is being overlooked. It is one CEOs are very focused on right now — innovation.

In a Global CEO Survey conducted by IBM, CEOs identified “creativity” or “innovation” as the most important factor for the successful company of the future.

Although CEOs believe innovation is important, many struggle to implement it because they’re afraid. And the more successful the company, the greater the fear.

The tendency is to hold on to the past –to believe that what made a company successful up to this point will continue to make it successful in the future. Psychologists tell us this is human nature: People fear the unknown.

Sticking with the status quo may have been fine when the world moved at a much slower pace. But in today’s hyper-paced business environment, it is no longer a good excuse. To change quickly in today’s business world, you need to hire innovators — and innovators, by definition, question the status quo.

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In her book The Innovation Killer, Cynthia Barton Rabe says that companies and employees rely on “what we know” and “the way we do things here.”

What keeps companies from innovating

But progress demands change. How is it accomplished? Who will take responsibility for an unorthodox decision? Who will be willing to stand up and say that the emperor has no clothes?

Rabe says there are two basic barriers that keep companies from innovating:

  1. “GroupThink” is following the herd — being a “yes man.” When employees are sitting in a room with 10 people they have to work with every day, it becomes very difficult not to go along with the group.
  2. “ExpertThink” is GroupThink on steroids. It’s the tendency to make decisions based on the opinions of experts. People don’t question experts. They have a healthy respect for them and believe them 100 percent.

Innovators question authority and assumptions. They do things differently. They think differently. They are able to connect ideas in strange and unexpected ways that are unexpected and very valuable to the company. Voicing a different opinion is not a sign that innovators are not “team players.”

Finding innovation takes more work

The downside is that working with innovators slows things down when questions are asked that generate a lot of discussion. Research shows that a team of people that are diverse in some way take longer to arrive at a conclusion than a team that is “homogenous.” But the end result is much better because of all the different ideas and ways of seeing things that are discussed.

Identifying and attracting innovators takes extra work. But the reward when you do find them is that they will end up being some of your most valuable employees.

So go ahead and keep asking job candidates all those silly questions — What’s your favorite movie? What’s your favorite book? If you could be an animal which one would you be?

But listen to the answers a little more closely. And when you hear an answer you’ve never heard before, pay close attention. You just may have found yourself an innovator!

Jacque Vilet, president of Vilet International, has more than 20 years’ experience in international human resources with major multinationals such as Intel, National Semiconductor, and Seagate Technology. She has managed both local/ in-country national and expatriate programs and has been an expat twice during her career. She has also been a speaker in the U.S., Asia, and Europe, and is a regular contributor to various HR and talent management publications. Contact her at


12 Comments on “The Recruiting Dilemma: Do You Look for Cultural Fit, or for Innovation?

  1. Great article. I was just discussing with a friend my frustration with employers not being open to “job hoppers.” I think individuals with a variety of experience in diverse workplaces have the potential to bring great ideas for innovation. Additionally, I believe every workplace needs that a unique individual who is empowered to share their insights. Examine work ethic and passion closer than the “fit”- especially if they have industry knowledge.

    1. Yes, Megan! So true. They see “job hoppers” as unstable. The reality is we don’t live in a world anymore that organizations have the reputation of keeping employees around for 30 + years. Layoffs are a way CEO’s brag about how they made their organizations profitable again…rather than deal with the fact that they lack a solid culture. Vision, values…no consistency…they fear the work to bring that change…and it just becomes easier to release people and cash the bonus check for the “great decision”. I encourage the Millennials I work with to ask questions in the interview process to understand the history of an organization…to uncover what their heart for healthy culture is, and how much employee turnover has been present in the past.

      1. Respectfully, Connie, you missed my point entirely. And when you end your comment with a personal plug…as if to say…”We will all get it right if we just click here”?…Seriously? That is like sticking your business card in my hand when you shake my hand. We’ve just met…but you assume I need your contact information to talk again. Presumptuous at best. Exactly the opposite of productive/and what has given the negative stigma now associated with your word…”networking”. People aren’t networks…computers are. You develop relationships with people. You plug computers in. Kinda like you tried to plug us into your website. The next generation isn’t the least bit interested in that kind of action. It’s not forward thinking…it’s being presumptuously forward.

  2. Thanks Crystal. But you’ve seen teams where someone has an idea but doesn’t want to rock the boat. That’s really bad “Groupthink”!

    1. I’ve seen that and then some. I’ve seen an entire room of SENIOR leaders be asked a question and not one person open his mouth for fear of looking stupid–and then the meeting ends and everyone leaves, breaks into small groups, and gossips. Yeah–that’s helpful.

      But I have to say, if that’s the culture leadership wants, then the company really shouldn’t hire those inclined to challenge the status quo. Eventually both parties will probably end up miserable. So, maybe these companies are right to stick with those not inclined to ask questions.

  3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Jacque.

    You touched on something I think is very important. “Pace”. Speed of information and everything else in our world. The greatest innovators won’t sacrifice pace for long winded discussions. They iterate, evaluate, change and grow. And they keep doing it over time, faster, and bring amazing results.

    Jason Fried, founder of 37 Signals, said it best. Get rid of the M&M’s in your organization. Meetings and managers. Don’t meet just to meet. Stop trying to manage people and lead them. Reminds me of great innovators who attack the work and make things happen instead of over-analyzing nonsense and procrastinating.

    Lots of great discussion starters for organizations in your article. Well written!

    Thanks again.



  4. Excellent article, Jacque. A lot could be gained by training hiring managers how to interview and for the senior leadership to define that “fit” to include diversity of thought.

  5. Hello Jacque, and everyone else that had commented on this post.
    You are absolutely right, I have worked in many industries, from restaurants, five star hotels, social service, as a probation officer, retail, have had my own business, helped other business owners open their business from start to end, have volunteer, for many organizations etc. I hesitate sometimes to put these on my CV because some people get the wrong impression. What they don’t realize is that I can bring a lot of insight to any company. I am not ashamed to say that, I question almost everything that’s put in front of me, but not to put anyone down, nor because I want to be controversial, is because I want to know if its something feasible, can it be accomplished, what is the time frame? who will be involved? Do we have a bench mark etc. some people get offended, when question with all of these. I’m glad I’m not the abnormal one.
    Thanks so much for this post, very instructive and very kind of you for Shari g with us.

  6. I love articles that poke and challenge an idea, but it’s really difficult to aggregate what are essentially very messy problems into bite sized chunks. I really like the comments from my colleagues below as this is where the details start to get picked out! Let me add a couple of my own …

    I think it’s about balance primarily. If everyone in your company was an innovator, then think about the chaos it would cause. Do you really want constant change in payroll and operations and production and strategy? Of course, you don’t want to stagnate, but change for change’s sake is not necessarily a good thing – ask anyone buying yet another sync cord for their new iPhone!

    I also think cultural fit is a bit of a red-herring. Like a high level article, culture is often tried to be defined at a ‘corporate’ level, but it actually isn’t (IMHO). You can have some very high level company values, but each sub-department in your company will have it’s own sub-culture. Some may indeed be highly innovative, but others may benefit from, and require, and attitude and behaviors related to “keeping the status quo”. The fit to each specific department is what will engage and retain staff vs. employees feeling “mis-matched”.

    Thanks for the thought provoking article … now, let’s keep the details coming!

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