To Fit or Not to Fit

There are only three questions that should be asked in a job interview, according to George Bradt, managing director of executive on-boarding firm PrimeGenesis and former head of marketing for Coca-Cola U.K.: “Can do you do the job?” “Will you love the job?” and “Can we stand working with you?”

The first question addresses a potential hire’s abilities. The second is one of motivation. The third is a question of fit.

When new hires don’t work out, it often comes down to one of three reasons: they couldn’t get the job done, something changed in the position or it wasn’t the right fit. In their haste to escape the unemployment queue, many people are accepting positions that are not a good fit, and organizations may be inclined to overlook these instances to fill crucial skill or role gaps.

But as companies look to increase efficiency and drive business results, hiring for the right fit is growing in significance.

“It starts with values,” said Linda Stewart, CEO of global consultancy Interaction Associates.

Determining the Right Fit

Some talent managers may view fit as dealing with personality, style or a “similar-to-me” bias, such as the desire to hire an individual with a shared appearance or dialect, or to hire someone who has attended the same college. But what fit often means organizationally may come down to non-negotiable behaviors or values that mesh with the existing culture.

Jana Fallon, vice president of recruiting for Prudential Financial, defines fit as “a set of behaviors or a set of ways of acting within the organization that are important.” Once the term is defined from a company perspective as something common to all employees, and expectations are shared and understood, Fallon said the workforce will be behaviorally pointed in the same direction.

“A given team is experiencing fit when people feel they are focusing on the right things,” said Kate Pugh, president of Align Consulting. “They’re able to have a conversation about what matters, and they’re taking insights from each other and putting them to work.”

Pugh said it is important to avoid “similar-to-me” bias in defining and identifying fit. A former colleague whom she said she adored was an example of how a good personal fit does not always transfer to a work environment.

“I totally loved conversations with her,” Pugh said. “[She was] one of those people you really want to have lunch with. But when it came down to writing a report together, I had to do all the work. I had to land the plane.”

Square Peg, Round Hole

At the point of hire, people are placed in positions where they are capable of thinking and generating ideas as a member of a team, or of “landing the plane” alone or seeing a project through to completion as a department or division leader.

Occasionally, new hires are incapable of either generating ideas or landing the plane, which results in a lack of fit for both the individual and the organization. Companies then have difficult decisions to make in balancing their own pursuit of sustainable success with an individual’s long-term professional growth.

“We believe that everybody in the long run wants to be successful,” said Stewart of Interaction Associates. “If somebody is not a good fit, you know that pretty quickly.”

Stewart said managers should establish ongoing and transparent feedback early so people know if they have the ability to be successful over time. Talent managers need to let employees know what they’re doing well and how they can improve, and then allow them to adjust and respond accordingly.

“[At Prudential Financial], there is an expectation that people need time and space to grow and develop,” Fallon said.

To promote fit, managers can introduce new employees to co-workers and clients as part of the on-boarding process, effectively immersing them in the culture they’re joining and the environment in which they will be working.

In taking this time to learn about the job, Bradt said employees will hopefully have a good sense of their own ability to fit, and they will have an opportunity to ask questions sooner rather than later, which can aid productivity and reduce the potential for disengagement or disgruntlement in the immediate weeks post-hire.

Alternatively, where candidates are not a good fit it’s better to know sooner rather than later; employees who don’t fit should have the opportunity to go somewhere they can flourish.

“What might not be a good fit for us might be a perfect fit for someone else,” Stewart said.

The Orwellian Office

Fit and culture often work in an interrelated fashion. The former should not equal conformity. An environment full of groupthink and a lack of independent thought, where employees sit in straight, ordered rows and function in a similar manner is just as dangerous as a company filled with mavericks shooting from the hip; sometimes even more so. Pugh cited the subprime mortgage crisis of the late 2000s as an example.

A number of financial insiders saw problems coming as the result of imprudent lending on the part of U.S. banks coupled with increased household debt, yet no one listened to those who were jumping up and down screaming, “Stop!”

Likewise, culture obstructed the flow of information in the real estate industry, which was reluctant to listen to anything that disputed its prevalent way of thinking. The result was economic disaster.

“You can have an organization that’s proudly moving along its strategy,” Pugh said. “It gets information that the strategy is flawed, and either the culture is one of formality, or the process is one of not enough rigor, or the socio-political [understanding] is that you don’t talk out of rank.”

While fit is crucial to an individual and an organization’s success, progressive cultures need to be structured around listening, debating and considering similarities as well as differences. There are common values everyone should share, but individual personalities and skill sets are different and necessary.

A good talent leader will facilitate integration of these differences and find what is complementary to bring out the best for all.

“I don’t think ‘fit’ necessarily means everybody looking and sounding the same,” said Deborah Brantley, vice president of human resources and talent acquisition for AlliedBarton Security Services. “People can — and absolutely should — have differing points of view on how best to achieve those end results or whatever it is as a team you’re working for.”

Culture and fit are particularly key in mergers and acquisitions. Clinton Wingrove, executive vice president of Pilat HR Solutions, said mergers and acquisitions don’t fail because of due diligence errors or because the products of Company A don’t work with the products of Company B. “They usually fail because when you try and bring the two groups of people together, it just becomes dysfunctional, and that usually is a culture clash.”

Different bodies have different values and beliefs, and regardless of how good, say, a union looks on paper, it’s not going to be successful unless there is a collaborative process where both organizations align around the values of the new organization being created. “It’s almost like a marriage,” Wingrove said.

One of Prudential Financial’s high-growth divisions is its annuities business, which was added via acquisition of the North American division of Swedish insurance company Skandia — American Skandia — in 2003, Fallon said.

Fallon said she often can identify American Skandia employees who joined the company post-merger by their management style, which she said is a good complement to the practices at Prudential.

“They have a certain style and approach, and for us, an aggressive decision making and a willingness to innovate and take risks,” she said. “It’s interesting to inject them into our larger organization and watch how their sets of behaviors are different yet still aligned, and how we can learn from them.”

Fit for the Future

“This is not a game,” Bradt said. “The economy’s tough, people really want jobs, but it’s more important for people to get the right job. It’s so important for companies to hire the right people. This ‘fit’ thing is not a trivial issue.”

Bradt said successful hiring for fit is a two-part process, and the organization and the new hire have responsibilities. Organizations can use interview tools such as recruiting briefs and behavioral assessment to hold up their end. Further, they must be clear on the new hire’s role in advance to reduce conflict and have accommodations in place for an employee to hit the ground running on day one.

New hires also should do their due diligence to get a head start on learning about the position before accepting an offer and be willing to adapt to mitigate any fit issues. They can make sure they’re being hired for the right reason by asking questions such as, “What specifically made you choose me?”

Bradt said they need to clearly understand the company’s values to determine if they’re a good fit, and talent managers should stress those values to provide needed information.

Different, however, doesn’t always mean a candidate is not a good fit. If a new employee has a perspective outside the normal culture, talent managers should remain open to their alternative points of view.

“[It] keeps you both solid to your core and fresh to innovation,” Brantley said.

Ronnie Reese is a former intern at Talent Management magazine. He can be reached at