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Two Big Reasons Why Work "Culture" Is Overrated

The fixation on "culture fit" might be steering us wrong on both sides of the hiring table.

Two Big Reasons Why Work "Culture" Is Overrated

[Photo: ALotOfPeople/iStock]

Whether you're an experienced job hunter or just striking out on your first round of interviews, you're probably pretty focused on sussing out a prospective employer's culture to see if you'd fit in. So heeding expert advice, we pay attention to interviewers’ personalities and picture ourselves sitting at a happy hour with our potential coworkers. We ask ourselves if that feels comfortable, what kind of personality a company seems to have, and whether ours squares with it.

On its face, that's not a bad idea. It's important to feel you belong at the place where you work. But we may be focusing on the wrong indicators, or adopting criteria that better suits employers' professed needs when it comes to "culture fit" than our own. It could be that "culture" itself trades at too high a value on both sides of the hiring table—that workplace culture, as it’s popularly understood, is downright overrated.

Sure, cool office furniture and company-sponsored outings are great ways to attract (and possibly also retain at least some) employees, but employers also seek productivity and results. And professionals need other things, too; while culture ranked top on job seekers' lists of priorities in a recent LinkedIn survey, so did benefits packages like health care and paid leave.

It could be that in our fixation on work culture, we're making it more difficult on ourselves to understand what actually makes for a workplace where employees thrive and businesses see results.

Happy Employees Aren't Always The Best Employees

It’s no secret that workplaces want happy workers. And to some extent, boosting employee happiness is a valid investment. Studies have indicated that happier employees outperform unhappy ones by anywhere from 12% to 20% or more on various measures of productivity.

But tread carefully—"happiness" isn't a straightforward quality that's easy to cultivate or measure. We tend to associate happiness with the freedom to do what we like, so employers often take the nearest shortcut and schedule "fun" activities to keep the office vibe lively and laid back. Others try to give their teams a little more autonomy over the work they do and how they do it.

These aren't necessarily wasted efforts. But superficial perks like these are just one part of a much bigger picture, even though they're the first features companies tend to tout—perhaps too loudly—in their hiring efforts.

Eimantas Balciunas, CEO of hotel booking startup Travel Ticker, says that employee happiness is a number-one priority: "We try to motivate our employees in many different ways. For example, every year we travel to an exotic location as our company's getaway, and it is a pretty easy thing to do when you run a hotel booking website." Most companies, however, don't run hotel booking websites; perks like these don't come as naturally, but that doesn't stop many of them—especially startups—for striving for something unique, fun, and supposedly happiness-inducing.

There may actually be a cognitive downside to actively building "happiness" into your work culture. There's such a thing as too much positive emotion when we're trying to get something done—it can actually make us less careful with our work, more tolerant of mistakes, and more prone to taking needless risks. Keeping employee morale high is a big plus, but an effective workplace culture needs to be more than strictly a happy one; your office still needs to produce work—some of which simply can't be dressed up as enjoyable.

The key is finding the balance between employee happiness and productivity, without sacrificing one for the sake of the other.

"Culture Fit" Can Open The Door For Discrimination

It makes a certain degree of sense that some of the most common interview questions revolve around workplace culture. Employers rightly want to hire people based on more than just their qualifications. It’s important to ensure a potential candidate will work well with the rest of the team.

But hiring based on "cultural fit" can become an unintended way of accommodating bias. Imagine—unless you don't even need to, because it's happened to you—walking into an interview and noticing you're the only minority in the office. Or maybe you just dress differently than the other employees there.

The same way college students tend to gravitate toward other students who they believe are similar to themselves, hiring managers unconsciously do the same. Sometimes, it's even a matter of semi-official policy to find candidates who already seem similar to the majority of the office—on the basis of "culture fit"—rather than actively try to widen the profile of the workforce.

In cases like this, culture is sorely overrated. Hiring based on what you know and already like can lead to complacency and hold back creativity. It’s a convenient way to hire other people like you and to turn down others who might have been qualified but didn’t "fit in." This is downright discriminatory, in addition to being bad for business.

Even the best-intentioned hiring manager's sense of their company's culture may lead them to pass up candidates who can contribute to the organization—possibly in ways that nobody else on staff can. It’s akin to hiring people who are always going to agree with your ideas instead of challenging your vision and bringing a new perspective to the table.

Amir Nehemia, CEO of Connecteam, which provides companies with branded employee apps, believes that keeping culture in check (and thereby preserving its real value) simply comes down to respect and communication, in ways that champion difference rather than subtly compel uniformity:

Workplace culture can sound good, but unless each individual in your team respects each other’s differences and communicates well, whether in person or through new technology, workplace culture is irrelevant. Clear and consistent communication, respect, and positive relationships between supervisors and workers are the key.

Workplace culture, at least as we understand it today, is overrated. There’s more to a productive workplace and happy employees than free beer on Fridays. And meaningfully hiring a diverse yet close-knit team takes looking beyond "culture fit." Where they should be spending our resources on building up the relationships between our employees and bosses, many companies pour their energies into things that may wind up doing more harm than good.

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