Finding the balance between skills and fit when recruiting

Tom Marsden, CEO of Saberr, discusses the skills versus fit debate and advises how companies can be more diligent in the hiring process to make sure they get the balance right.

There is much heated debate around whether employers should be placing more emphasis on the skillset or the cultural fit of the candidates they hire. First and foremost, the question that employers should be asking is not ‘which factor is the most important?’ but rather ‘how can I make sure I’m getting the strongest mix of both?’

There are two key reasons why the debate is raging as to whether skills or fit matter more. First is the impact of digital transformation on many industries and the pace of change. Skills are not static anymore.

The digital world is so fast-moving that what companies require and look for in their employees is changing year-on-year. In the current climate, where job-switching is increasingly the norm, many employers are looking for ‘adaptability’ in their candidates – someone who can make their existing experience relevant to a new project or different environment.

The dream candidate could look quite different in ten years’ time and requirements for job roles need to be re-evaluated on an ongoing basis. Second, work is increasingly collaborative.

McKinsey have estimated that in developed economies over 40% of work involves high degrees of collaboration (in developing economies they estimate 25%). It makes sense that if you need to collaborate with other workers, the importance of fit increases.

What do we mean by ‘fit’?

It’s customary, particularly in the corporate world, to define cultural fit in the context of a standardised company culture. This can become problematic in very large organisations for two reasons.

First, if a company culture is comprised of buzzwords that are more cliché than tangible, they are missing the point – the factors that define it need to be real and actionable. As Drucker is reported to have said about organisational success: “culture does eat strategy for lunch” but culture is about “how things get done when no one is looking”. Often these don’t correlate with the five words printed on the “culture posters” by the lift.

Secondly, a company’s culture can’t be uniform when it is comprised of different departments that each demand very different roles. “Fit” will have to mean something slightly different for each department. For example, a candidate’s “fit” with a risk management team at a bank will be different from the candidate ‘fit” with a sales team in the same bank. The candidate will need to have different skills for sure but they will also be working in a different team culture.

A significant part of culture fit needs to be defined at a team-based ‘micro’ level rather than an organisational ‘macro’ level. A candidate’s fit is relevant to any organisation which has a team-based working environment.

Exceptions exist in some job roles, but for the majority of companies, fit remains a vital factor for consideration. At Saberr, we define a well-fitting team as one where the motivations and underpinning values of members are aligned; therefore, looking at factors such as what drives an individual and the tolerance for others with different drivers.

Getting rid of the bias between skills and fit

In the past emphasis has been heavily weighted towards candidates having the right skills and qualifications. Recruitment professionals have been primarily concerned that their employees have the technical ability to perform the job at hand. However, we’re starting to see this bias being challenged.

We’re hearing more about the importance of assessing cultural fit in the hiring process, as it’s something you cannot teach, while you can learn skills on the job. Alain Dehaze, CEO of Adecco, stated in a recent FT piece: “You are hiring now more and more on attitude and then developing the skills”.

Harvard psychology professor Amy Cuddy has pointed out the distinction between trust and respect when we get to know someone, and this applies especially in a professional context. Her reasoning is that competence is valued highly but only once trust has been built.

The parallel with the skills and fit debate is clear – having the right skills is valuable, but this becomes irrelevant if the social and cultural fit isn’t right in the first instance. Similarly, research from Lou Adler, CEO of The Adler Group, shows that once a certain threshold of technical ability has been reached, most people’s success is driven almost entirely by their ‘soft skills’. It’s safe to say you shouldn’t be hiring for one without the other.

Getting the balance right between skills and fit varies between industries. Neurosurgery is not a career where employees can be expected to ‘learn on the job’ – in such cases employers are wise to place initial emphasis on skills. Having said this, the NHS has run into problems when highly skilled medical practitioners have been unable to collaborate effectively due to a mismatch of personalities. Even though fit may come second to skills in this instance, it still plays a very important role.

How do we test for it?

The reason for the skills bias is obvious: measuring skills doesn’t invite the same problems or complexities that arise when measuring fit. When measuring skills we consider visible and quantifiable factors, while the latter requires us to consider less visible factors. How do we go about assessing these ‘invisible’ factors?

Companies can start by using scientific approaches more. Both skills and fit should be measured with the same scientific scrutiny. This doesn’t mean that machines are going to take over the role of the HR manager, rather they will increasingly be used alongside it.

Data analysis can be used to accurately predict a person’s fit just as it has been used to analyse technical skills for many years. More businesses are taking recruitment in this direction and looking to data to help validate or question the decisions made through traditional hiring methods. In this study published in Harvard Business Review, algorithms outperformed humans in effective decision making.

How will the traditional recruitment process change?

As well as employing data-driven methods, companies can start by placing significantly more emphasis on cultural fit: using predictive algorithms and conducting interviews that are entirely focused on cultural fit.

Interviews need to be conducted with the team-members present who will actually be working with that potential new hire.  Interviews need to be structured to explore fit. Where the competency interview went before, the deep cultural interview needs to pick up – it’s not just interviewing for skills with a couple of questions aimed at team fit added on at the end (as is too often the case).

An example of where we already see this type of assessment is in the Red Arrows – when recruiting a new member, candidates are only required to take a half-hour flying test. They spend the rest of the week with the other team-members to assess fit. This is an extreme example, but it is something many businesses can learn from: even in a highly technical field, cultural fit is fundamental for good performance.

One of the problems with interviews is that certain candidates will anticipate the format, play the game and give employers a false impression of their true personality and values.

Cuddy also mentions the tendency for candidates to mould their behaviour during internship programmes in a bid to appear as hard-working as possible: this includes skipping social events and generally appearing unapproachable. Sophisticated data-driven tests can help guard against this, and can be used to get a more accurate insight into a candidate’s personality and values in a timely fashion.

We can also expect to see more emphasis being placed on trial periods, with prospective hires given short probation periods working in their future team. This is part of a major trend to more contract and outsource working.

More than one-third (34 percent) of all workers in the United States are contract workers, and this proportion is expected to rise considerably over the next five years. Making the best of this assignment based culture to identify workers that “fit” best with an organisation is a potential upside to that trend.

When it comes to evaluating skills and fit, neither is more important than the other but, as it stands, we’re still seeing an underweighting of the focus on cultural fit. In the next few years, we can expect to see more companies readjusting their recruitment processes to shift the balance. Investing in the assessment of cultural fit might seem like a drain on time and resources but, if you get it right, the returns are invaluable.

Praseeda Nair

Kellen Rempel

Praseeda was Editor for from 2016 to 2018.

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