Exclusive: Hiring for the right cultural fit

Assessing cultural fit is an important aspect of any interviewing process. Adele Png, Talent Development and Acquisition Leader of Philips, says employees attuned to organisational culture are also more likely to stay with the employer.

Hiring for cultural fit is essential for any organisation. Most of us would have seen examples of employees exiting the organisation as a result of organisational misfit, and the negative impact that has on productivity and engagement.

According to an article by Harvard Business Review, the attrition cost of poor culture fit can be as much as 60% of the employee’s annual salary. Imagine the negative impact to the organisation if a leader that was hired into a company was unable to fit into its culture.

The cultural question

Of course, before we can assess cultural fit, we have to understand: what is culture?

Organisational culture is a system of shared assumptions, values, and beliefs, which impact how people behave in an organisation. These shared values have a strong influence on the people in the organisation and dictate how they dress, act, communicate, and perform their jobs.

Culture influences how employees make decisions. It also influences organisational values and beliefs, such as team collaboration, accountability, risk taking, flexibility, ethics, diversity, and entrepreneurship. An employee who is a good cultural fit can work well and excel in the organisation that is congruent with their own values and beliefs. An employee that struggles with adjusting to the new organisation’s culture will end up disengaged and eventually exit the organisation, likely causing disruptions to operations in the process.

Assuming the candidate has the requisite skills and qualifications, a behavioural interview can be useful to assess cultural fit. This technique looks for examples of how a candidate has behaved in different work situations. For example, an employee who has a pattern of working well in team structures would better fit an employer that organises work around teams and values collaboration, while a candidate that prefers to work independently might feel encumbered to have to engage opinions of peers in decision-making. Candidates who appreciate empowerment and ownership may struggle in an environment of control and, similarly, candidates who work best in structured environments may find it challenging to adapt to loosely structured organisations with fewer rules and guidelines.

At Philips, we look for individuals that want to make meaningful impacts to their environment, and we strive to improve peoples’ lives. So, we look to see if a candidate values these ideas and is eager to contribute to them.

Culture can be described over many dimensions, so it is not unrealistic to say every organisation’s culture is different. It is therefore important for the Talent Acquisition team and hiring managers alike to understand the company culture and break it down into ways that can be useful in assessing cultural fit during an interview.

Most companies would have clearly defined dimensions and descriptors of their culture, and recruiters can use these descriptors as a starting point to design culture-specific questions.

At Philips, recruiters and hiring managers have an interview tool that describes the key values and competencies, and breaks them down into behavioural descriptors that can guide the assessment process. For example, one of Philips’ core values is “creating meaningful innovation”, and one of its descriptors is “encourages and challenges others to innovate, bringing new ideas and looking externally for inspiration”. To assess a candidate on this value, an interview question could be, “Can you share examples where you introduced new ways of working or new product ideas, and describe that process and the end result?”

It is also important to understand that while multinational organisations will have a broad corporate culture, location also influences local company culture. It is therefore good to understand elements of the local country culture and practices, and weave these into interview questions. This is particularly important when hiring foreign talent into a country. For example, some cultures can be described as tending towards independent decision-making while others emphasise interdependence. Understanding and assessing how a foreign candidate would adapt and operate in that environment is crucial.

Complex questions

There are many tools and frameworks available to help companies assess cultural fit. However, there are also so many dimensions to culture that it can lead to a very complex and confusing list when assessing a candidate.

My advice is to narrow down the key areas that are important for candidate success. In my experience, apart from assessing candidate fit to a company’s values and beliefs, cultural astuteness (defined as the ability to get out of one’s comfort zone and successfully navigate through the cultural nuances of a company), taking time to understand the way things are done before making major recommendations, and learning agility (defined as a person’s ability to learn, analyse, understand and adapt to new situations and problems), give a candidate a higher chance of success in adapting to a new organisation.

Equally important are attributes such as the ability to network and form meaningful relationships, knowing when to leverage on networks, self-awareness, and openness to adapt to change. Candidates that possess these traits have the ability to traverse and adapt to different organisation and country cultures, and have a proven track record of success.

Some practical tips for determining cultural fit include:

  • Take time to understand your company culture before interviewing; it pays to be prepared.


  • Consider the dynamics of the team and business needs before hiring.


  • Take time to assess values, and try to keep this separate from assessing competence. Some organisations invest in psychometric testing to improve accuracy in assessment but while I think this is useful, it should be taken as a guide and further validated by face-to-face interviewing.


  • Give applicants a chance to lead the conversation and make an effort to set them at ease, so that their personality shows in the interview. In fact, keeping questions broad (and following up with probing questions) circumvents candidates preparing well-rehearsed answers to interview questions.


  • When assessing cultural fit, do not ask personal questions such as those about age, race, citizenship status, or health.


  • Understand that when assessing cultural fit, it does not mean hiring employees that are exactly the same. In fact, there are studies that show diversity can improve team performance, so hire someone that is different, yet not too divisive in approach, so that they can make a meaningful contribution to the team.


  • Some organisations invite candidates to spend time in the office to get a feel of the culture and for interviewers to assess fit in that way. I think this is a good practice if interviewers are prepared to spend the time, and there is a way to safeguard the confidentiality of the candidate.


  • Be aware of and be prepared to challenge your own biases when you assess fit for culture. I have found having diverse panel interviewers quite helpful in improving assessment accuracy, and revealing blind spots.


When cultures change

In this article so far, I have covered some ground on assessing cultural fit with the assumption that the organisation’s culture remains the same, but what if the organisation intends to go through a transformation?

Looking at the challenging business climate today, many are going through some form of transformation in order to survive, and many are hiring candidates from non-traditional sources who possess skills the company does not currently have. In this situation, companies are deliberately hiring out-of-the-box types in an attempt to change the culture, and this calls for very different ways of assessing talent.

Indeed, looking for cultural fit takes less importance, but more emphasis is placed on individuals who have experience driving change successfully across an organisation.

Hiring for the right fit is far from easy, and requires care, time, skill and a multi-pronged approach to interview assessment. However, when applied well and with that investment in time and resources, it can significantly reduce cost of hiring the wrong fit and help organisations better perform over the longer term with the right talent.

About the Author

Adele Png has extensive regional HR experience across diverse industries such as healthcare, consumer goods, financial services, and technology. She has successfully started up and built HR and talent acquisition functions for multinational corporations.

As Philips’ Regional Head of Talent Acquisition, Png leads a team of recruitment professionals across 11 countries in Southeast Asia and the Pacific across all businesses.


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