Question

I’m interviewing with a good company for a job that’s just right for me, but I’m worried about whether it might be a bad cultural fit. I don’t mean whether I’m exactly like them. Being different is, to my mind, a benefit, as monocultures are evolutionary dead ends. Nor am I worried that they are all jerks. What concerns me is the difficulty we have had communicating with each other thus far, and how that could lead to unpleasant working experiences for all of us later.

In other words, I fear that we might be oil and water. Two very good substances, capable of being useful and productive in their respective contexts, yet which do not mix well together. How should I handle this? Thanks in advance.

Nick’s Reply

cultural fitI wish you had shared an example or two of the communication problems, but I think we can approach this generally and still explore some ideas that everyone might benefit from.

I compliment you for not glossing over this communication problem in the heat of wanting to get a job offer. More important, I give you extra points for realizing this isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker. An emotional reaction to a problem like this can cost a candidate a great opportunity. It’s important to step back and approach this reasonably. And the only way to do that is to have a candid talk with the hiring manager before it’s too late.

Before we continue, while I think I understand what you’re referring to, it’s worth pointing out that “cultural fit” is a controversial concept. For those that want to read deeper, I like this provocative article from the BBC: What does being a ‘cultural fit’ actually mean?

A bad cultural fit?

People are quite programmed when it comes to the interview process. Maybe brainwashed is a better word. They believe certain topics are off limits. For example, they may think it’s not proper to question an employer’s culture or communication style. Candidates often will make the mistake of trying too hard to show they can fit into a culture, when the cultural fit isn’t right for them. Likewise, candidates sometimes fail to question things that don’t make sense, and they incorrectly assume they are the source of the trouble. (Employers nowadays might assess “your fit” using unvalidated — and often downright goofy — automated interview tools. This may be the actual problem!)

When your antennae pick up a problem, trust your judgment. It’s the thorny problems that should spark the most careful examination. Nothing is off limits, as long as you’re diplomatic. If it’s likely to come back and bite you after you accept a job, talk about it now.

When a meeting reveals a communication failure (or other problem of cultural fit), you should raise it as an issue with the hiring manager. The manager is likely to debrief the interview team after your meetings, and if they saw a problem, they’ll discuss it with the boss. So should you, but you will have to initiate this discussion. So call the manager. Share your concern, and emphasize that your purpose is to resolve it together.

How to Say It

“I just wanted to give you some feedback on our interview. I like your company and your products, and I believe I can contribute to your bottom line. But, I’ve got some concerns about the difficulty we seemed to have communicating with one another. Sometimes that’s just an artifact of highly-structured meetings. In this case, I’m not sure. Did you get the same impression I did — that communication between us wasn’t as clear as it might be?”

(Of course, don’t use these exact words. Tune your comments so you’re comfortable.)

Most job candidates wouldn’t bring this up with a manager because it may be awkward or seem risky. They’d rather keep mum and hope for the best. That’s plain silly. A tactful, head-on approach reveals the sort of judgment any good employer would want you to demonstrate on the job. So show it now. (If your concern surprises them, then your perception is likely correct. You’re oil and water. You won’t mix.)

Before or after a job offer?

Is this too aggressive? Nope. It’s assertive, and it’s responsible. There’s no rule that says a candidate has to wait for a company to take action after an interview. The candidate can take action first. Sometimes, the candidate should act first.

Alternately, you may feel you should wait until after they extend a job offer. You’re the best judge of that. The larger point is, do not ignore your concern because you will likely have to deal with an ill-fitting match after you start the job.

Give the manager a chance to express their perceptions and thoughts. If the two of you can come to a meeting of the minds (whether you get the job or not), you will have handled this with aplomb. You could take this one step farther by suggesting a follow-up meeting with the team, where the discussion about “fit” can continue. If there’s a thoughtful manager on the other end, this could set the stage for a healthy, long-term work relationship.

Again, I’m impressed that you’re trying to deal with this constructively. I think the best way to figure out whether there’s a cultural fit is to bring it up now. I wish you the best.

What’s all this stuff about “fit”? As long as you can do the job and the company pays you, why worry about the cultural fit? Is this issue overblown, or does it make a difference? How do you assess this component of a job match?

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17 Comments
  1. Really fascinating topic, particularly in this era of the importance of addressing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in hiring and promoting. Cultural fit is important, but it’s easy — as the BBC article you linked to points out — for the focus on cultural fit to become a way of imposing implicit bias on candidates and employees. Good employers will challenge the assumptions that underlie “cultural fit” and check their biases. But I’ve seen more than my share of companies where it seems everyone is cut from the same exact cloth.

    • @Larry: Thanks! We don’t stick just to the easy (or obvious) issues here.

  2. Nick, my first thought was that you hit all the nails on their heads, nothing further need be said.

    Except it may be relevant to not broad brush this because some companies allow their HR departments too much weight to throw around, enabling HR beyond reason.

    So, dialing down, is this “difficulty” being experienced with the HA or HR?

    If the former, then back to what you said.

    If the rub is with HR and the HA won’t or “can’t” unlock HR on its position (for example), the candidate may need to walk, losing that opportunity because management is allowing the tail to wag the dog.

    A third possibility as it were. And not an uncommon one…

    • @Paul: I don’t know whether it’s the HA or HR but that’s a good catch and a good suggestion.

      • Thank you.

        Unfortunately, this caveat is born from experience and was added to my long list of ‘what can go wrong in this convoluted process’.

  3. Last year I had probably one of the worst professional experiences of my career, and it was all due to both myself and my employer not asking the right questions. I feel they just wanted to hire someone quickly and carried out a cursory interview. They barely asked detailed questions of how I carried out tasks or my communication style. On my part, I didn’t ask enough probing questions to get a good sense of the pace of work and level of communication required. After I got the job, it was apparent that it just wasn’t a good fit. I felt like a failure and they weren’t happy with my performance. Every day was a miserable experience. However, I learned really important lessons on interviewing and assessing fit.

    • @Nancy: That’s an employer “throwing bodies at a job” and/or what I call a broken job, where the metrics for success are not made clear or not even established, where the deliverables are not objectively defined, and where no one tells you how everyone is expected to park their bikes. Sorry you had to live through it but glad you survived!

  4. I took a job once knowing the culture was
    going to be challenging. I convinced myself
    my leadership would make a difference and we’d flourish. Big mistake. In summary if leadership is unconsciously incompetent, you’ll be miserable from the start.

  5. I agree, some details would have been very helpful.

    I worked as a civilian with the Army for many years. We also supported equipment used by the Navy and Air Force.

    All services performed the same types of engineering tasks, but they used different terminology, forms, and sometimes processes.

    Initially, communications were quite a challenge. They talked about their forms and processes, while I talked about mine. I had to develop a “Rosetta stone” for myself to translate ideas and actions from my framework to theirs.

    Once I cracked the code and modified my language to match their environment we got along swimmingly.

    Differing language and terminology can feel like a cultural mismatch, but it can be overcome with a little flexibility and patience.

  6. I once interviewed at a company that I’d heard really bad things about. Over a couple years I met 2 different people who would talk about what a nightmare it had been. I actually hired a third for my team, who had worked there and who had actually been considered very unpleasant and difficult there, and the person who knew of him even said “the culture was so bad and he’d been put in a role that he wasn’t a fit for so honestly even though my work friend who was on his team hated him you should take that with a grain of salt.” We hired him and he was always good to work with, pleasant and a good team mate.

    So the first question I had for the hiring manager (who was a sr director) during our interview was to ask what he thought about his company’s poor reputation. He told me he had never heard anything negative about it.

    I said thanks for the interview but I was not interested in continuing on. Honestly I went into it not interested but I was open to hearing what he had to say. Which turned out to be nothing.

    • @Sarah: When a manager is unaware of his company’s reputation in the community his company hires from, you’re right to wave goodbye. Good for you for asking the tough question.

  7. I once let the interviewer know I was not interested in a job during the interview. (The 3 annual multiweek cruises off the Aleutians on a WWII surplus freighter did not fit my life, although for some a good job.)

  8. Having re-entered the dating world while conducting a passive job search, I am seeing great parallels between dating and interviewing. More than parallels, they are the same.

    In both cases, I am looking for cultural fit/compatibility. And that is more important than some of the typical factors. I have interviewed with some companies for positions that are squarely in line with my experience, but I could tell that the culture was not comparable with long term happiness. Similarly, I have had dates with people from similar industries and with similar experiences to mine, but the compatibility was not there. In contrast, some of my best interview and dating experiences have been with organization/individuals who you would think at first glance that there would not be a fit. But the culture/banter/interest/attraction was just there. The best “opportunities” seem to come from unlikely places.

    I definitely agree with Nick’s suggestion about talking it out to see if it can work. But I think you cannot underestimate the importance of that cultural fit. I think a good cultural fit is more important long term than the actual tasks you are doing. My skills are transferrable. I can find lots of specific work tasks enjoyable. Just as I can find true crime or Science Fiction enjoyable. But that ability to communicate and be comfortable with each other is really what is needed for the long term. And as culture/goals/interests morph over time (because they do), you can always go to a family therapist to get your personal relationship on track. Business therapists are fewer and don’t seem to have similar levels of success. End in both cases,

    Note that in both cases, I am looking long-term. The one night stand can be fun in both your work and your personal lives. However, i personally gain more satisfaction from the longer term relationship. And that requires the cultural fit.

    • @Just Me: Excellent observations about the distinction between “skills fit” and cultural fit. I agree the latter is more important for a solid long-term relationship of any kind.

  9. It sounds like the candidate is having reservations about joining the company because of a particular incident that occurred. Maybe some miscommunication coupled with attitude or some character flaw that reads toxic.

    Emotional intelligence is something that few companies will require for their employees depending on the role they have. But usually if a company decides to extend an offer, it’s because they think you fit in with their culture. Not everyone will see this right away. Sometimes it takes a few more interactions within that cultural setting to know.

  10. It is good that you’re considering the issue of miscommunication or poor communication skills. I like Nick’s idea of addressing this with the hiring manager. Good communication is important. Poor communication leads to all kinds of problems (doing tasks and projects multiple times because instructions are poorly written/communicated) and clashes.

    I wonder how the other employees view communication. Nick often advises job seekers to talk to other employees (not just the hiring manager). Ask to meet the team you’d be joining if hired and ask them about communication at this company, with bosses, with other departments, etc. You might get a more honest answer from them than from the hiring manager.

    Cultural fit is important. I’ve taken jobs that I shouldn’t have. In one, I knew ahead of time that the culture fit wasn’t great, but thought that my work ethic and skills would be enough. It wasn’t. In another, the culture shifted once several people left/retired and those that remained turned the workplace into something resembling “Mean Girls” or worse (like reliving my junior high school and high school social experiences). Bullying, mocking people for the most ridiculous things, and worse. I’m no longer there, and glad for my sanity.

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