Why A Values Fit Matters More Than A Culture Fit

Almost every company today screens potential hires for cultural fit. But what constitutes a company’s culture and how can you tell if a particular person fits into this particular mold?

The recent court case involving Ellen Pao, a junior investing partner fired from VC firm Kleiner Perkins who sued the firm for unlawful termination, shows how nebulous a term “cultural fit” really is. She claimed the firm has a strong bias to hire men with a particular background. Kleiner Perkins won the case, saying there was no bias at play; they simply let Ms. Pao go because she wasn’t a cultural fit.

A company with a strong culture has a much better chance at long-term success than one that lacks this sense of cohesion. But having a culture should not be an excuse for excluding employees with different backgrounds, points of view or working styles. A true company culture is about shared values, not hiring a homogenous group of employees of the same gender, race or pedigree. That means finding the best employees requires looking for a values fit more than a cultural fit.

Values-focus is a prevailing concern in startup culture. Hunter Walk of seed-stage VC firm Homebrew believes that company leaders must describe and test for a clearly articulated set of values during the interview process. Walk advises that strategy will build a stronger company over time than one which merely focuses on skills.

I have first-hand experience with the volatility created by a lack of focus on values. I left a company I co-founded because I didn’t share the same values as my co-founder. At the time, I didn’t frame it like that; I didn’t even know what company values really meant. I just knew we had entirely different visions of what our company should stand for, and we had unintentionally created two different teams, each with disparate values.

So when I launched my latest startup, I put a lot of thought into what the company’s core values would be. Once I had determined these core values, it was clear they would be the guiding principles behind our “culture.”

To figure out your overarching company culture, you first have to define the why behind the company. We’ve worked hard to figure out our why: to create the space for people to be their greatest selves. We develop our product, work with our customers, and design our business processes with that goal in mind.

This main mission is also the first filter managers use when assessing the “values fit” of a potential new hire. If a candidate doesn’t share a sense of purpose around this one main goal, then he or she isn’t a good fit with our company. On the other hand, if a candidate is excited about helping people be their greatest selves, he or she has a great chance of fitting into our company culture – no matter their background, personality or work style.

Once an employee has passed our first values fit filter, then begins the more subtle process of making sure the person fits into the company’s day-to-day working culture. Gauging whether a potential hire is a values fit is a subtle process. There is no one interview question you can ask to find out for sure if a candidate is a fit with your values. The key is to ask questions about the candidate’s personal and professional lives and try to understand why they have made the decisions they did.

There is much at stake for great companies competing for top tech talent, and being a values-fit can mean the difference between prestige and a constantly deficient workforce. Each year, Glassdoor releases its list of Top 25 Companies for Culture and Values. Citrix made the cut in 2014 and David Friedman, SVP of human resources, explained why values are so critical: “People come here, and they stay here, because they’re passionate about our vision. They’re inspired. They share our values.”

If an employee shares your company’s key values, then she can learn to embrace your more specific day-to-day work culture. You can’t force someone to adopt your company’s culture, but you can lead by example and openly discuss core values at every opportunity. Pretty soon, it will become apparent whether a new employee fits with these core values.

Cultural fit is an outmoded concept that often becomes a limiting constraint when it comes to hiring. Instead, look for employees who are a “values fit.” Finding employees that share your values is much more difficult than finding employees who look and act like everyone else on the team. But the end result will be a much stronger, creative and dynamic team aligned around a common purpose.