What’s more important in hiring – skillset or culture fit?

9 December marks the rolling out of the Senior Management and Certification Regime (SM&CR) to 47,000 FCA regulated organisations in the UK. The SM&CR is intended to clearly establish and upkeep a culture of responsibility, accountability, and good conduct in financial services to strengthen market integrity so sorely missed in the financial crisis a decade ago.

It’s an interesting move by the FCA which stresses both the importance of culture and skillsets in business. As HR managers know, recruiting and retaining talent that possess both the necessary technical skills to perform specific job duties and the qualities that make them an excellent culture fit can be an extremely long, drawn out and expensive process. Often, organisations are forced to choose between the two.

The debate over culture versus strategy is well known. The famous Peter Drucker phrase: ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast, lunch, and dinner’ has been long appropriated by many a Ted Talk-giver. It rests on the idea that culture: the values, practices, beliefs, and purpose of an organisation are unique to itself. Strategies, by contrast, are not necessarily so.

What are the pros of hiring culture fits?

Company culture refers to an organisation’s vision. It connects its workers to a purpose that should make them feel happy to work there, and customers feel happy to use their services. A toxic company culture, however, has the potential to doom an organisation. Here’s why it’s important to hire culture fits.

Culture aligns organisations

Involving all employees in an organisation is very important, so team attitudes and mentalities are aligned with the company’s direction, which can be easily communicated with staff via software like an Cezanne HR system. Hiring good fits helps to keep the cogs turning and the collaboration flowing. A culture fit is more likely than a technical fit to be able to integrate well with a team and is able to produce stronger work in the long term (arguably possessing greater potential).

Furthermore, precisely because they’re a good culture fit, they are more likely to motivate and inspire their teammates, increasing productivity and making them extremely good investments.

Culture attracts the best talent

A great culture is a valuable recruitment and retention tool. In some respects, it’s the most important part of employee retention. Especially when an organisation is facing challenges or significant developments, as culture fits are more likely to be loyal to the organisation.

Additionally, it’s significantly easier to teach job specific skills than to teach an individual how to work well with a team. A candidate can have all the right qualifications, interview well, and talk the talk, but if they don’t share the same vision for a company, it has the potential to all fall down – especially in managerial positions.

Hiring employees that don’t mesh well within a company’s culture and aren’t able to collaborate effectively can lead to poor work quality, low job satisfaction, and a toxic environment – all of which can contribute to higher rates of employee turnover, which can be devastating for a business. Indeed, a poor culture-fit can cost as much as 50-60% of the annual salary of the turned-over staff member.

What are the pros of prioritising skillset?

It would be unwise to hire exclusively on the basis of culture, or to fail to recognise the importance of excellent technical expertise. Culture alone is limiting for several reasons. Companies often view culture and what it stands for erroneously. Moreover, many hiring processes fail to recognise its fluidity.

‘Culture fits’ are vulnerable to bias

HR professionals tread a fine line when it comes to hiring staff that are a cultural fit. Because of the fluidity of company culture, organisations have varying interpretations of what it is, meaning many decisions in the hiring process are made by ‘gut instinct’.

When does hiring for fit become bias?

Often in the hiring process, many decision makers are thinking less about ‘culture fit’ than they are, ‘could I see myself having a beer with them?’, or about socialising with them beyond work hours.

Hiring for skillset very significantly narrows the possibility for bias as facts, experience, and certifications don’t lie.

Hiring for skills is arguably better for diversity

When might a new employee with a different approach influence the business in the right way? There are all sorts of personalities and competencies beyond a company’s defined culture that can be great at the job you need done. The introvert who excels at working alone might get a grip of your business better than the extrovert who conforms to the politics of the organisation; they might even grow in self-confidence and assert themselves when they have a great idea.

A hiring process built around ‘culture fit’ not only facilitates bias, but it can also lead to a homogenous organisational outlook that can be limiting. Hiring an unconventional candidate on the basis of their technical expertise doesn’t have to backfire on the culture of the firm. In fact, it can add to company culture. With different work styles all collaborating to achieve the same ends, a lot more is possible.

A ‘strong’ culture doesn’t necessarily mean fixed. The goalposts for a company of 100 are unlikely to be the same when it grows to 1000, and culture needs to be flexible to accommodate such changes. It would be unrealistic and highly limiting to hire an army of clones – all of which would have similar, standardised, and symmetrical responses to problems. An organisation that is diverse in thought as well as personality, arguably has greater potential to succeed.

It costs a lot to train an inexperienced culture fit

There can be a lot of problems in hiring someone who lacks the technical expertise but happens to be a perfect culture fit. This is mainly because of the resources – namely time and cost – to onboard, train, and develop the candidate to get them up to speed to fulfil the job requirements.

Recruiting talent that already possesses experience or technical expertise in the job means they won’t need too much training. This candidate will be able to hop on to tasks easily and deliver results swiftly, and to an excellent standard. Any hiring manager valuing culture over skillset needs to bear in mind that in the short term at least, doing so comes at a cost.

Finally, there are many cases in which companies simply cannot afford to train a new hire and require key technical expertise, yesterday – whether it’s down to cost, or simply urgency in delivering a project.

Balancing culture fit and skills

There’s no way around it. Culture and skillset are two fundamental pillars in the hiring process. If one collapses, so does the other.

In an ideal situation, you’ll be lucky enough to find a candidate that reflects the core beliefs, attributes, and behaviours that make up the organisation, and who has the ability to carry out duties to a high standard quickly and efficiently. It’s a difficult task and you need to ask yourself three questions:

  1. What are you willing to compromise on?
  2. What are you willing to train on?
  3. What would you give for the technical expertise?

So, what’s more important – skillset or culture fit? Let us know your thoughts!

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