What the research says about cultural alignment in hiring

By better understanding cultural alignment between employee and employer, you can ensure a win-win relationship for both.

Did you know employees who have high cultural alignment with their organization are more productive and less likely to leave? If you “click” with a coworker or unintentionally act “in sync” with your team, you and your employer might be benefiting from cultural alignment. Employers that measure it and incorporate those measurements into their hiring process experience a better Quality of Hire (QoH, a metric used to measure the impact a person is having on an organization). 

How can forward-thinking organizations measure this seemingly intangible feeling? Thankfully, cultural alignment has been the topic of substantial empirical research. In fact, the world knows a lot about cultural alignment – such as how to define, measure and improve it – thanks to more than 40 years of study in organizational psychology. This impressive body of research has methodologically examined everything HR and people leaders need to know about cultural alignment. So, what do these experts tell us about cultural alignment, why does it matter and how can you measure it?

What is cultural alignment and how does it occur?

Cultural alignment is the degree to which an individual’s values match the values of the organization. For instance, imagine an organization has a culture defined by collaboration, taking risks and giving direct feedback. An employee that also values collaboration, taking risks and giving direct feedback has high cultural alignment while an employee that values self-reliance, predictability and aversion to direct feedback has low cultural alignment. 

Cultural alignment can be achieved through recruiting and selecting new employees that organically align with the values of the organization or by socializing new employees to adopt the organization’s values. Research suggests it’s a lot easier to recruit and select for cultural alignment rather than socializing employees to match the values. That’s why including cultural alignment measurements in the hiring process can produce significant benefits.

Benefits and measurement

When employees are culturally aligned, they experience immediate psychological benefits that influence day-to-day interactions with co-workers. According to research by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, cultural alignment leads co-workers to communicate more effectively, predict each other’s behavior, like each other more and feel more trust in a team. For example, when co-workers share the same values, there’s a reduced chance of misunderstanding. When they have similar motives and goals, it promotes confidence in how others will act, which can build trust and streamline work processes. 

All these day-to-day psychological benefits of value alignment – such as communication, predictability, liking and trust – lead to better outcomes. Research of more than 172 employee datasets found when employees’ values are aligned with their organizations’, they perform better and are less likely to leave their roles. Thus, when organizations hire for value alignment, they hire more effective performers, resulting in a higher QoH score.

The next obvious question is, how can you measure cultural alignment and factor it into hiring decisions? Jennifer Chatman, associate dean for academic affairs at UC Berkeley, founded the field of cultural alignment in organizational psychology research. Her 1989 dissertation established that most organizational culture values can be deduced (or simplified) into six fundamental dimensions:

  1. Innovation – Is the applicant willing to experiment, move fast, and take risks (innovative), or do they tend to prefer predictable working conditions, following rules and being careful (structured)? 
  1. Feedback – Does the applicant confront conflict directly or do they prefer to avoid conflict? 
  1. Collaboration – Does the applicant work in collaboration with others and exhibit a team orientation, or does the applicant prefer to work alone and exhibit a competitive orientation (i.e., self-reliant)? 
  1. Results oriented – Does the applicant favor working for an organization with high expectations of performance and achievement, or do they favor working for an organization that offers security of employment and aims to maximize employee well-being? 
  1. Customer focused – Does the applicant prefer work that benefits customers or work that is enjoyable or intrinsically rewarding for the self?
  1. Attention to detail – Does the applicant pay attention to details or is the applicant a “big picture” thinker?

When looking to measure an individual’s cultural alignment, these six dimensions form a great foundation. To measure them, organizations should ask the individual and their prior managers and colleagues (research has also shown that input from these people is valuable in measuring a candidate’s behavioral traits and soft skills accurately) to answer a series of questions that rate the individual on each dimension (perhaps with a slider question). Then they can compare the applicant’s culture profile with the organizations to determine alignment. 

Note that an individual does not need to be 100 percent aligned with the organization’s culture to be a good hire. The new candidate might have some behavioral traits that complement the existing team. For example, hiring a person with closer attention to detail than average might help a team struggling with missing deadlines perform better. The hiring team can also provide data on a new hire’s cultural alignment with their manager to help with onboarding them. Ways in which the new hire is not aligned with the organization can be managed if everyone is aware of them and able to account for them. 

In 2021, more than 68 million people left their jobs. Organizations that are looking to reduce mis-hires and place high-performing talent care about cultural alignment and use it when measuring QoH.