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Rejected Because I Wasn't a Good Cultural Fit!

Posted 11/22/2015

Cultural FitThe past couple of days I had conversations with young professionals going for jobs who had been rejected by different employers because of “cultural fit”. They found it a vague reason and wanted to know more. What does cultural fit really mean?

Through my recruitment work I come across that explanation plenty of times. And it is usually a valid reason. All organizations have a specific culture. And even within an organization there may be work groups where the culture is a little different again.

Organization culture can be influenced by many things. Examples include management leadership style, customers, the business environment, market position and financial performance. I have been involved with companies where

  • Management style required employees to be assertive when making internal recommendations and push back if they were turned down. The rationale was that they had to compete for limited internal resources. If a candidate didn’t have the resilience and confidence to “push back” they wouldn’t be hired.
  • Employees were expected to just get on and deal with everyday ambiguity. While this company tried to do the “right thing” following a strategy and course of action, often business circumstances over-rode previous decisions. They needed employees who wouldn’t be frustrated by that – just get on and deal with it!  
  • The customer group of this company were tradespeople and blue-collar workers. Sales and customer support employees needed to be able to communicate at that level. That included building rapport, talking about day-to-day things that interested the customers, getting your hands dirty etc. The company looked for candidates with a local accent and down-to-earth way of speaking. That meant that there were a lot of candidates who could do the job but were not considered a good cultural fit.
  • This company was generally a market leader. Employees identified with this and believed they were the best. They followed a cookie cutter model in hiring. If you didn’t tick all the boxes, you didn’t get in.
  • This company was an underdog and employees had to use their wits to outsmart its competitor. They looked for people who thrived on challenge, were resourceful and who could rely on streets-smarts. So candidates who were used to working in a well-resourced organization where everyone had a well-defined role, were considered unlikely to fit in.

There are countless other examples but you start to see why employers might say you’re not a cultural fit.

It made me reflect on my corporate days (seems like 100 years ago now) when I interviewed for a CFO role with a major construction company. I had spent most of my career in consumer goods companies so there was a big cultural gap between the two.

I met with the CEO of the construction company and we got on well in the interview. At the end, he said to me “Peter, you’re a very talented CFO but I don’t think it’s going to work out here.” I was a bit disappointed but that was probably more my ego because I knew I could do the job.

He then said to me “Show me your hands.” I was kind of surprised but then he said to me “See, you have all of your fingers and thumbs. In our industry it’s not uncommon to see people with the tip of a finger missing.” I laughed! He was exaggerating but I got his point. Construction was a “rough” industry in contrast to the “process and data driven” consumer goods industry. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do the job. He was drawing on his years of experience to conclude that the change in organization culture would be too much. If I had joined, the risk was that I may not stay.     

And that’s the point when you’re on the receiving end of “you’re not a cultural fit”. Like the candidates I spoke with, they had the skills to do the job well. But the employer judged that they wouldn’t thrive in their organization and risked underperforming or resigning. As a young professional it’s hard to see why you’re not a cultural fit. But that’s where you have to go on the employer’s judgement call. 

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