Get Fit: What it Means to be a 'Cultural Fit' for a Job

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Posted by Cara Scharf on June 16, 2011
Get Fit: What it Means to be a 'Cultural Fit' for a Job

"We're sorry, but you're just not a good fit." It's a common line job seekers hear and one that can be very disheartening, if not downright confusing.

Many job seekers are frustrated by the idea of not fitting because, unlike more assessable factors, such as qualifications, fit is elusive. A good analogy is romantic chemistry: the spark is difficult to explain, but if it's not there, the relationship fizzles. Fit can be equally hard to define, because it's subjective and very much depends on the hiring manager's gut feeling.

Though fit may be an exasperating concept, employers indicate it's a huge part of hiring decisions. To dispel some of the mystery around what fit is, we asked a few employers to define what it means to them.

What is fit?
A basic definition of fit is how well your personality, attitude, and work habits jive with those of an employer. In terms of personality and attitude, all employers have their own set of values and goals, and they want to make sure you're in line with them. For example, accounting firm Grant Thornton characterizes itself as forward-thinking. Nina Guthrie, the firm's director of university recruiting, therefore looks for candidates who embody that quality. "If someone demonstrates that they are super-adaptable and good on their feet, I know they'll be great for us. But someone who is rigid and has to do everything in set steps won't be."

Sabrina Ramirez, a recruiter at Campbell Soup Company, expresses a similar sentiment. "We embrace certain themes: helping others, diversity, and working in the community. So a candidate who has done community service or participated in diversity events looks, to us, like a good fit over someone who hasn't."

Employers also consider your work habits when assessing fit, because they want to know how well you'll get along with your coworkers and manager. Alison Green, chief of staff at lobbying organization The Marijuana Policy Project and creator of askamanager.blogspot.com, says that if she's hiring for a very direct, blunt manager-someone who doesn't sugarcoat things-she expects future conflicts with a candidate who indicates that he doesn't like this kind of management style.

One of fit's most difficult aspects is that it often has little to do with your skills. If you don't happen to fit in at a company, it doesn't necessarily mean you're unqualified. Green finds that some candidates don't share her organization's work ethic, but she admits that doesn't necessarily reflect badly on them. "Some people I interview want a place that's strictly nine to five and allows a few breaks for personal time. That is a legitimate way of working-just not with our organization." If you're passed over for a job due to a bad fit, don't take it to mean you were a bad candidate.

Should you try to fit in?
When obtaining a job is your ultimate goal, it's tempting to find a way to prove to employers that you fit in so they don't pass you over. And there are several ways to find out what a company wants and then make sure your application and interview answers will fit in: visiting the employer's career website to learn about their values, asking about a company's workplace culture during informational interviews, and reading articles and brochures about the company to get a sense of its culture.

However, trying to cloak yourself in an employer's values can be detrimental. "You can bluff in an interview, but having to do it every day is a recipe for hating your job," says Green. She compares the situation to dating: "You could change to appeal to your boyfriend or girlfriend, but the relationship will fizzle eventually if you aren't being yourself." 

Plus, a good fit should be as much a concern for you as it is for a potential employer. You have your own requirements for an ideal workplace-maybe you want flexible hours, a culturally diverse workplace, or an assertive manager. Use your company research to decide if a company can fulfill these requirements. Just like an employer, you have needs-and a right to say, "Sorry, but you're just not a good fit for me."

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