How to hire for culture growth, not just culture fit.

As employers, we’ve been taught over and over the importance of hiring candidates who are strong cultural fits for our organizations. But what does that mean, and what if this focus on “culture fit” is actually holding your business back?

If you focus on hiring people who blend into your existing culture, then you’ll only maintain your current status quo — even as the world and business realities evolve.

Of course, it’s important that the people who work for your company share its core values, like respect, integrity and transparency, and that these values are not just words on paper but visible in the actions of its employees at every level.

Shared values are key to fostering enthusiastic, productive and happy employees, who feel empowered and appreciated as individuals, yet operate as a team to achieve a collective mission. This is what company culture really means and what a great one can do.

Culture is not about quirky office traditions, how often you socialize, the fun fringe perks you offer, or token signifiers like what kind of movies or music your team likes — yet it is too often understood this way.

Overemphasizing this kind of “culture fit” in your hiring decisions can be damaging to business growth because it can unintentionally limit the diversity of thought, experience and background on your team in ways that may be hard to see or measure. This is particularly the case for organizations without well-defined values or goals for their culture. Without anything to measure by, “culture fit” assessments are subject to the whims of a hiring manager or interviewers, a recipe for unintentional bias.

Your culture hinges significantly on how you hire, fire and promote people, and requires far more than a gut feeling about whether a candidate would “fit in” with the existing team.

Instead, consider hiring candidates who share your values and will add value to the future of your business by enhancing, challenging and strengthening the other aspects of your culture instead of just slotting neatly into it.

Doing this well requires a growth mindset, favoring the temporary discomfort that change can sometimes bring over the comfort zone of the status quo — or, “not rocking the boat.” It also means being willing to have hard conversations instead of burying potential conflict.

“Your culture is like your lawn,” said Jonathan Jones, Cultural Conversation Leader at DEMDACO, a Kansas City-based manufacturer. “You can choose to ignore it, but it’s going to do something all by itself and it won’t be beautiful.”

As a leader and a hiring manager, it’s imperative that you hire for the growth you want tomorrow, not just the culture you have today.

To reduce blind spots, foster innovation and prepare your organization for the future, you need diverse teams operating in an inclusive culture. This should start with, and go beyond, the more obvious factors that may come to mind when you think of diversity in the workforce.

Ideally, diversifying your team means seeking out and hiring people from a variety of backgrounds and communities, and also ensuring a range of professional experiences, education and skillsets.

For example, do you find yourself subconsciously favoring candidates who went to the same set of schools or worked at the same agencies? This can over time contribute to a homogeneous, stagnant culture.

Even something as seemingly benign as preferring candidates whose industry experience mirrors your own could hold you back. After all, the best ideas often come from unexpected places. Candidates from other industries could teach you new strategies that give you an advantage in your own.

The business case for a strong, diverse and inclusive culture is clear: Happier, more engaged employees are more productive and stick around longer, leading to less turnover. When employees feel safe bringing new or challenging ideas to the table — because their employer has demonstrated that they value diversity of thought — creativity and innovation are encouraged.

Hiring for culture growth instead of culture fit should also naturally lead to a team that demographically represents the world we live in, not just one slice of it.

Diversity is particularly important for marketing teams, who must continuously evolve the communications, tools and campaigns they build to resonate with a growing and changing consumer base.

But how do you find and hire talented candidates who may fly a bit under your professional radar? It starts with a look in the mirror.

Step 1: Define your team’s existing culture and blind spots.

Every company has an existing culture, even if its leaders haven’t worked to proactively shape it. But if you want to improve it, first you must define it.

Start by evaluating your brand’s stated core values and principles, and weighing them honestly against the day-to-day experience your employees have. What feedback have you received in exit interviews, good or bad? Where could your culture stand to improve, or where might there be misalignment?

Observe how your industry is evolving, and where you and other experts believe it will be in the next 5 or 10 years. What skills will be required that aren’t so common now? Reflect also on how your customers are changing, both demographically and psychographically.

Now do the talents and backgrounds of your team reflect these changes, or do they resemble outdated cultural or industry norms?

With this in mind, review your current employees’ personal and professional backgrounds. What do they have in common? Where are the gaps, weaknesses or misalignments?

Filling these gaps are what your next hire should bring to the table, so rather than sweep those weaknesses under the rug, let them inform your hiring strategy and guide your search.


Step 2: Get everyone on the same page.

Change begins with you, but it doesn’t end there. Overcoming old habits at an organizational level means aligning everyone involved in the process of finding, vetting and hiring your next employee.

From internal HR teams to external partners, from colleagues to direct reports, if they will be recruiting, reviewing, communicating with or interviewing candidates, they need to understand your goals and priorities from the jump.

Explain your desire to hire diverse talent who share your company’s core values and will add something new and unique to your existing team, even if they may not seem like the perfect fit on paper. Make a list of your desired qualifications and traits in priority order, with more conventional factors like education and relevant industry experience towards the bottom.

Few things will align internal teams more than establishing key metrics and holding them accountable. If you’re not in a position to do this, you still can emphasize the ROI of a stronger, proactively improved culture.

Step 3: Craft inclusive and inviting job descriptions.

Clearly defined priorities and aligned teams are important, but communicating effectively can make or break your hiring goals. Attracting your ideal candidates is as much about what you say as how you say it.

When writing a job description, avoid language that might turn off certain candidates or signal a less inclusive, less accessible environment. Verbiage such as “demanding” or “aggressive,” for example, might deter top candidates from applying. Those words don’t really communicate anything helpful or specific, anyway. Instead, focus on the facts.

Make sure your company’s website and social media channels will resonate with a wide range of talent, rather than undermine your efforts. For instance, at a minimum, the photographs you use should reflect the diversity you seek.

If your company has made a DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) commitment, be sure to share this in your job descriptions and in the Careers section of your website, along with any reported results since that commitment was made.

Step 4: Shake up your hiring processes to ensure the best candidates aren’t overlooked.

Of course, broadening the pool of talent you’re willing to consider has an inherent logistical challenge: wading through a potentially even greater stack of resumes. And more resumes to look through may just create more opportunities to rely on imperfect mental shortcuts to help you narrow them down.

However, certain behaviors, skills and personality types are required for success in different roles and functions — and these can be difficult to discern from a resume alone.

That’s why we recommend filtering the first round of applications by whether the candidate shares your values and will be a good fit for the role itself. At Freeman+Leonard, we often turn to the Rembrandt Portrait® Personality Assessment to evaluate talent on how likely they are to perform well in the job and in your environment.

The Rembrandt Portrait measures 14 inherent human qualities that contribute to job success. The assessment gives employers insight into a candidate’s personality and values, and helps identify skills such as problem solving, relationship building, communications and personal initiative.

When used early, especially at the application stage, the Rembrandt Portrait can narrow the stack of resumes to only your most likely top performers — without accidentally overlooking someone just because they didn’t seem right “on paper.”

Having your current employees take the Rembrandt Portrait assessment can also help you reveal their core values, which can either help to define those values at the company level or alert you to potential misalignment. Either way, you’ll have a strong baseline for evaluating the results of your candidates.

Best of all, with this filter in place, you can spend less time reviewing resumes and more time in the interview process, getting to know your strongest candidates on a personal level.

Step 5: Demonstrate your values in the interview and onboarding process.

Stated values must be more than words on a page — they must be lived and proven. The experience your candidate has in the interview and onboarding stages will impact the rest of the time they spend at your company, and this will be shaped by the actions of everyone they meet.

How your candidate behaves early on can also tell you what their values really are.

For example, one of Southwest Airlines’ differentiating core values is fun. This can be observed by anyone who’s flown with the airline and listened to a flight attendant’s goofy spin on the takeoff and landing safety instructions. Fun then is part of their interview process, even for corporate roles. One candidate we know walked into her interview at Southwest, sat down and realized she was facing a panel of interviewers wearing silly animal masks. The goal? To see how she would react. Discomfort, awkwardness or taking offense would likely not help her chances. Instead, she laughed — and she got the job.

Props and stunts aren’t required to judge a candidate’s values. At DEMDACO, it’s a simple conversation. “I interview everyone who makes it into an in-person interview, just to talk about culture and purpose, and mission and vision,” Jonathan said. “And I kick it off by explaining that our purpose is to pursue business the way it ought to be — and to seek the common good in all we do.”

Then, he listens carefully to their response. “I can tell if they’re tracking with me or not, but I also pay attention to their word choice, like how often they use the word “I” versus “we.””

Jonathan also asks questions in the interview to help determine whether the person in front of him matches the results of their Culture Index assessment (a tool that, like the Rembrandt Portrait, evaluates candidates based on their traits).

“I often ask if they’re already involved with their community, and figure out if they really understand what we’re trying to do with our purpose and mission. If they were trying to fake it in any way, it’s going to become evident very quickly.”

We all know that actions speak louder than words. By intentionally creating a hiring and onboarding experience that reflects your values and explores them in detail, you’ll set up both your organization and your new hire to succeed.

Step 6: Be willing to do the work long-term.

Hiring and onboarding are key aspects of culture growth, but will only be truly successful when applied consistently.

“Toxic cultures are like an overgrown lawn,” Jonathan repeated. “And when you let things go, it becomes that much harder and more expensive to make it beautiful again. But companies that work consistently and intentionally at pruning, trimming and removal will notice immediately when a weed sprouts up. It’s very conspicuous.”

“Shaping your culture is also a lot like a long-term relationship,” Jonathan continued. “Creating a healthy relationship is super, super simple. It’s just not easy. Creating a healthy organization is simple: Communicate well, give and receive feedback, make yourself accountable, and keep each other accountable. Celebrate well, and recognize others. That’s all simple — it’s just not easy. It takes hard work.”

Jonathan is likely onto something. Gallup defines an inclusive culture as one in which “everyone treats everyone else with respect, managers appreciate the unique characteristics of everyone on their teams, and leaders do what’s right.”

Simple, but not always easy.

Work with talent experts who understand your values and can source candidates who will contribute to growth and innovation.

Freeman+Leonard offers a hands-on approach to finding the right talent for the role while also leveraging data to reduce unintentional bias. Using a tool like the Rembrandt Portrait ensures only the strongest, most aligned candidates are considered, regardless of background.

We act as a strategic hiring partner throughout all stages of the hiring process to ensure everything — from the job description to the interview and the offer — will attract talent who will enhance your culture, not just fit into it.

Because a diversified team is key to a future-proofed business.

Contact Freeman+Leonard to start making the right hires to evolve your culture — and your business — into the best it can be.