There’s been a revolt against hiring for cultural fit. Business Insider says it leads to a homogeneous workplace. The Harvard Business Review calls it a “misguided hiring strategy” and says to stop doing it. Forbes even published an obituary for the concept, saying it’s “fraught with bias.”
With all due respect, they’re wrong. Companies will always have a culture, and culture will always be set by the people you hire. If you’re not actively building a healthy one, you’re passively building a sick one. But the antidote for bad culture is to build good culture—not to pretend you’re building no culture at all. My worst hiring mistakes (and I’ve made doozies) have come when I’ve forgotten culture and hired for something else instead. Determining cultural compatibility is tough to do and tougher to do well—which is why only the best have mastered it.
A shibboleth might help.
The word “shibboleth” comes from an Old Testament story about the Ephraimites, who devised a test after they were infiltrated by an enemy tribe. Anyone who couldn’t say “shibboleth” with the local pronunciation exposed himself as an imposter. Today, the word is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a word or saying used by adherents of a party, sect, or belief and usually regarded by others as empty of real meaning.” A business who knows itself well will establish certain ideas and concepts that are central to its identity, but meaningless to the outside. Your best hires will be the people who recognize and share your excitement for those concepts.
Here’s the really good news: establishing a shibboleth for your company will allow you to better focus your business, invigorate your team, and increase diversity. Here’s how:
Focus is Formed.
The hard part—and the real importance—of a shibboleth isn’t finding someone who recognizes it, it’s picking one in the first place. To say exactly who fits your brand requires first understanding your brand. And most companies don’t. But that’s exactly why finding a concise articulation of your identity is such an important exercise: it requires the clarity that is essential for you to succeed.
Former IBM CMO Abby Kohnstamm put it this way: “The larger the company, the greater the importance there is to get to a clear, simple brand idea. Ours became a rallying point for the entire organization. It shapes the culture, it shapes business decisions, and it shapes behaviors.”
Think about that. A single litmus test against which a firm can evaluate everything. Every hire, every new product decision, every investment opportunity, aligned to a single idea. You know exactly what the most successful brands are about, because they’ve put in the sweat equity to figure it out for themselves. You can’t afford not to do the same.
Boring Becomes Breathtaking.
It’s the second half of the definition of Shibboleth that’s really important: “usually regarded by others as empty of real meaning.” My firm, which specializes in advertising for stalled, stuck, and stale brands, has helped hundreds of companies find the essence of their identity. Usually, the identity we land on seems boring to outsiders—it hardly ever ends up in ad copy, and nobody outside the company ever knows about it. But that’s why it works: if you get it, you’re attracted to it. And if you don’t, you’ve already disqualified yourself.
The idea Kohnstamm (not to mention IBM’s 380,000 employees) was so excited about? “Solutions.” Not exactly a revolution. But solutions to business problems were what IBM’s customer wanted, and that’s what drives IBM. “Solutions” is a boring word to which IBM gave its own special insider meaning. So it became something that IBM employees could get excited about, because it provided a way of articulating what makes them special. And if solving problems isn’t your thing, you’re probably not what IBM is looking for.
Like a family in-joke, the whole point of a shibboleth is that the world doesn’t get it. It’s for you, so that when the going gets tough, your team can remind each other why they’re here.
The worst backlash against “culture fit” is from the people who assume it’s discriminatory. Patty McCord, former Chief Talent Officer from Netflix, argues that “culture fit” is shorthand for ‘people just like us.’ It’s a fair concern, and the practice can be abused that way. Weeding out anything feels a bit discriminatory, so it’s easy to assume that if we all have to agree on culture, then we’ll suffer from groupthink and bias.
But in fact, the opposite is true. Every hiring decision is inherently discriminatory. You’re picking one person out of thousands. If you have to discriminate, it’s better to discriminate on the right things. And mathematically, you’ll have the broadest talent pool if you discriminate on only one thing.
An organization that lacks a single point everyone can agree on isn’t diverse, it’s divided. On the other hand, the organization who can pinpoint the single concept that defines it has actually opened the door to the most diverse company (and thinking) possible, because it’s eliminated all other incidental or unintentional barriers. You can hire any age, race, background, or expertise, because none of those things are what define who you are.
In my own firm, we have a former realtor in our media department, an ex-political-consultant in accounts, and a psychology major in strategy. Our creative director will tell you that recent hires he’s made from outside the agency world have been a lot more successful than those he’s poached from other agencies. The reason those particular team members have panned out—even as seasoned agency pros have come and gone—is that we’re inspired and unified by a single idea. If we can all agree on that one thing, then we can bring diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and strengths to the table in its pursuit.
To modern businesses, like the biblical Ephraimites, sifting out those who are not committed to your cause is a matter of life and death. It’s worth taking the extra time to make sure you’re doing it right. And when you do, you’ll stop wasting time on guesswork about whether a person, partner, or project is a fit—because you’ll know who you are.
Eric Layer is Director of Account Management at McKee Wallwork and Company, a marketing/consulting firm that specializes in turning around stalled, stuck, and stale brands. At MW+C, Eric leads the charge to develop groundbreaking strategy on behalf of his clients, who include firms in healthcare, manufacturing, death care, hospitality, insurance, finance, construction, nonprofit, and franchise service. Eric has advised and ghostwritten for CEOs and members of Congress, and his PR work has landed front-page stories in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and other national publications.