Call it what you want: Cultural fit, match quality, belonging. It’s the idea that you’re in the place where you should be. When it comes to our careers, our generation wants more than ever to be somewhere they belong: Somewhere they are contributing to something bigger than themselves, a place where they can do great work that only they can do. In addition, they’re more willing than ever to quit to find that sense of belonging elsewhere.

This, of course, is a tall order for employers. How can they be expected to create this ideal, personal environment for their workforce AND enjoy the benefits of a productive and collaborative group of employees? I doubt I will be able to answer this question to any satisfying end for any employer reading and asking themselves the same question. But I do hope to shed some light on some opportunities and misconceptions about employee fit that look like low-hanging fruit to me.

Similarly, you might be reading this as someone early in their career having not yet found the belonging that they would love to be enjoying just yet. Perhaps you’re being hard on yourself that you haven’t found it. Or frustrated that the career options available to you at the moment don’t seem to feel like the right fit either. Let me share my first insight: That’s ok. Your fit is there, read on to find out a bit more about how you might be able to increase your chances of  stumbling upon it.

Before we get too deep, let’s recap a few things that have and haven’t changed in our work life over the past few decades.

What’s changed?

What’s remained the damn same?

Forgive me for being general on the above, but the point I’m trying to make is simple: How can we be expected to find a rewarding fit when the conditions available to us have not progressed to compliment the changes to our society and work life?

Easy. We can’t.

We have to be more focused on Match Quality.

Why is match quality the goal?

Match quality ensures happy, productive staff who stay longer. Match quality also creates more likelihood of internal mobility (employees finding their next career steps within their current company) that even further contributes to the benefits listed above. Internal mobility is often neglected when we think about employee experience in general. It is the result of an employer deeply understanding the skills, potential and ambitions of their employees. This understanding allows them to make informed promotion and employee mobility decisions based on real discussions and feedback with individual team members.

What happens if we keep missing on match quality?

Rather than get carried away with the implications of poor match quality with new and tenured team members alike, I trust that you’ve at least glanced at the alarming headlines that stream into Linkedin regularly. You know the ones, more news on burnout and employee happiness, encourage flelxibility in the workplace to maximise employee experience and minimise turnover. These are big news stories all the time, because these are big opportunities to improve. Herein lies the benefit of match quality, it limits the risk of employee burnout and turnover. Given the extremely high costs to rehire, companies should be vigilant for opportunities to maximise match quality

How do we optimise our match quality as individuals?

I’m not going to, for a minute, say that match quality depends on the company alone. It can’t. If we want to see true progress in this space, individuals in the formative stages of their career have to understand what it means to bring a variety of skill and experience with them through their career. And therein lies the secret to long-term matching success — match quality is achieved by having many differing experiences in one’s career.

It hasn’t been more beautifully put that in David Epstein’s recent book, ‘Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World’. He makes it clear that we are often surprised how capable we are of making drastic changes to our lives and careers. Sometimes the changes that might seem like hurdles at the time, end up being a launchpads shooting you into the vocation where you feel a sense of belonging, contribution, and purpose.

Being a generalist, especially early in one’s career might seem like a bad idea. But this is the ‘sunk cost fallacy’ — a mindset where we are convinced that ‘giving up’ on experience, study, or the possibility of a potential promotion spells disaster for future prospects. When in actual fact, the opposite is often true. He makes it clear that in the early stages of your career, it turns out to be more valuable to be learning about yourself, than about any specialised set of skills that may help you excel in a particular niche.

How do we hire for match quality?

We know that years of experience, the school someone went to, what their grades were, how they interviewed, etc, is not always a reliable indicator of their expected job performance. I’m not going to flog that horse either. That being said, it’s easily defensible to hire someone who went to Harvard. It just is. When someone turns out to be a sub-optimal hire, someone can ask, “Why on earth did you hire this person?”, a pretty safe answer is “Well, they went to Harvard”. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to let go of the idea of a ‘safe hire’ because as humans, we value safety. And risks are generally risky.

So how do we step out of our ‘safe-zone’ and start placing better bets on candidates who can bring more to a position than a school, or years of experience, or technical proficiency alone?

Job descriptions and curriculum vitaes

As I’ve lamented before, CVs and job descriptions themselves are a good starting point for scrutiny. They are a vehicle for racial and gender bias, the impacts of which we understanding more and more. And at the end of the day, trying to find a match between 2 pieces of A4 is still the barebones of recruiting today. I smell an opportunity for change. But if they’re a necessary evil, what can we do to improve?

It’s important that job descriptions make it easy to learn more about the company, without this information, applicants won’t get the sense of purpose, mission, and impact that the role has. Huge kudos to companies like @Homerun and @Recruitee who are making this easier than ever before.

The next big opportunity is a much-needed paradigm shift away from requirements for the role to responsibilities. Yes, there will be skills requirements for any role, but the focus should not be here in a job description. A great job description instead focuses on the responsibilities of the role. By making this subtle shift, it’s possible to tap into candidate pools with higher match quality. You’ll attract talent from diverse backgrounds that can bring external experience that can readily be applied to the challenges you’re facing.

Hire from a prescription, receive a treatment. Maximise match quality, see your organisation’s health improve over time.

Utilise networks and people

Social recruitment is an underrated and under-used strategy. Referral hires last longer, are happier employees, and are generally more productive. I suggest a revisit or your internal employee referral strategy. If you’re the kind of employer who believes that your people are your biggest asset (as is correct, fight me), are you making it clear that the input of your people in the business decisions and of course hiring decisions is being optimised? If not, take some time to set this straight. Your next super-star employee is likely connected to one of your current ones.

Mixed Interview Strategy

Are your interview strategies only serving to further permeate the existing bias of your company? The answer is usually and often unavoidably, yes. The reason that it’s unavoidable is because you’ve got human decision-makers in the process of offering someone a position. People are fallible. People have biases.

Now some proponents for inclusive hiring might suggest removing people from a large part of the selection process, anonymising candidate information up to a certain point, creating tests and quizzes (one day I will go on a Myers Briggs tirade like this one, but today is not the day) to make up for a part of the hiring process. But that’s just it, these can only make up a part of the hiring process.

Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman accidentally stumbled on the key to great interview strategy when working with the Israeli military. The goal was to challenge the ‘intuition’ that recruiters were naturally convinced was their biggest asset and strongest indicator of candidate quality. This intuition was negated by standardising interview questions (much to the chagrin of the officers), and then allowing for officers to share their intuition on candidates after these set questions focused in on ability. The outcome was slightly unexpected. The best predictor of overall performance was neither standardised questions OR the officers’ intuition. But a combination of both.

So where to from here?

The only way is up when it comes to match quality, both for individuals in their careers, and companies seeking to strengthen their teams. I don’t know whether this challenge will result in a gradual improvement, or a revelation — I suspect the results will vary tremendously for each company making decisions to increase match quality.

To come back to my earlier point about low hanging fruit, here are the top suggestions for finding and amplifying match quality:

For companies:

  • Hire for responsibilities, not requirements
  • Make is easy for people to learn about your company, in depth and transparency.
  • Revisit your social/referral recruitment initiatives. Increase visibility and align incentives.
  • Be aware of the innate bias in CVs and job descriptions alone
  • Vary your interview and hiring strategies to mitigate bias, a combination of structure and experienced intuition is the best approach.

For individuals:

  • Chill out. Your vocation is very unlikely to be what you expect it is today.
  • Spend time in your role learning about yourself as well as the skills in front of you.
  • Then keep learning about yourself as a priority early in your career.
  • If you’re reflecting on a varying career, don’t see this as a weakness, understand the strengths you developed with mixed experience and be clear on the value you bring to each role.
  • Always apply for roles where you don’t meet the ‘requirements’ but are confident in your ability to manage the responsibilities.
  • Be aware of breadth and depth in your experience. Go deep where necessary, but go wide where you can.

Benjamin Webster