What to do when an employee doesn't fit your culture

Culture fit is important these days. But what do you do if an existing employee is just not a great fit? Or, if your culture is shifting for an employee doesn't seem to be able to shift with it? I'm looking for input from HR and business professionals on: 1) how to spot a mismatch 2) steps to take to get the employee aligned 3) what to do when your best efforts don't work?


Culture fit is a term that has an unclear meaning.  We think we know what it means - but we also need to make sure we don’t use “cultural fit” as a way to exclude people and avoid diversity.

To really answer these questions I would need to ask a bunch of questions to find out what exactly the underlying problem is - you are trying to address by talking about culture fit.

But first a word on cultural shifts.  

Culture shifts within an organization take time to occur. Especially if the shift is intentional.  When people struggle with the shift – it doesn’t mean anything bad or that the person is not a good fit. It just means, change takes time.  I did a talk on this for HR professionals just last week.  Resistance to change is predicted to occur, so people orchestrating cultural change should be patient with people resisting – to a point.  I have found that the people most resistant, often become the biggest champions once they make the change themselves.  It’s actually really rare for someone to just be toxic.  But if someone is toxic – they eventually need to go – but you won’t know that until the 3rd change wave has occurred.

To answer your questions.

 1.    How to spot a cultural mismatch.  

This should be done in onboarding and dealt with.  This is often less about culture than it is about motivation. I used to do volunteer management for an animal welfare organization. We would occasionally get people volunteering who were interested in animal rights. This was a mismatch, or what I would call other motivation.  We were not an animal rights organization and anyone wanting to volunteer in an animal rights organization would be problematic because they would spend all their time trying to get us to work on animal rights and the organization was set up to do animal welfare.  It’s not that one motivation is better than the other. It’s just that – they had different motivations, goals and purposes. Hence – other motivation.  If you had a hot dog shop and were looking to hire someone and that someone really wanted to sell hamburgers, but you don’t sell hamburgers – then they would not be a good fit – because they would be other motivated.  Motivated to do something “other” than what your organization does.  Whenever this happened, I would refer them to another organization whose goal and purpose aligned with the prospective volunteer.   When you interview, it’s good to get a sense of what the person wants to do and why they want to work for your organization. This will help weed out any other motivated people.  It is ok if someone just wants a job. But it’s not ok if they really really want to do something other than what you are asking them to do in this job.

As for culture – I rarely see mismatches.  Most people value the same things everywhere in the world, so most people are capable of getting along just fine with each other regardless of their “cultural background.” This is why my first instinct when I hear the term cultural fit in an HR context is to wonder whether this requirement will end up excluding people that would otherwise make great employees. This is why maybe you need to better define the term “culture fit” to help us understand what exactly the problem is you are trying to address. 

Why does culture matter? What do you really mean by culture? What is different – if the culture fit is good among the employees?

The one big difference that I do see is how autonomous people like to be. Some people need a lot of autonomy. Others want a lot of oversight. But again – that’s a matter of onboarding properly so that each employee gets placed in a work environment that works for them.

2.    Steps to take to get the employee aligned. 

Well – why? Why do you want them aligned?   If the problem is motivation and understanding of work roles – then clarifying work roles can help.  If there are interpersonal problems, then those need to be addressed.   If you want everyone to get on board with an ethical culture of giving?  Why?  Isn’t it ok for someone to just do the job.  I interviewed Manuel Guillen of the University of Valencia last fall on ethical culture in work. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GHurPInnC7o He said that the only obligation the company can have is to lay the groundwork for ethical values to grow within the organization.  It’s like laying a flower bed. You nourish it and seed it – but the individuals decide how much to embrace of the values and vision. You can’t force people to work from a higher order motivation in their work and it would be unethical to demand that of employees.  The bigger concern is – is the work getting done and is it getting done in an ethical dignified manner? Yes – Great. No? What do you need to change to create space and encouragement for that to occur. But that’s a management issue and a management failure – not a matter of employee fit.

But to answer the question – I would go into interview mode to find out why there is a disconnect and get the employees perspective on things. What do they need?  Normally though, when the fit is bad – it’s because there is a problem with the manager.

3.    What do you do when your best efforts don’t work? 

Question whether you are the problem.  I seem to have to say this in every presentation I do, but if you are not getting the results you want – then you are doing something wrong.  Often, it means our rewards and reinforcements are out of alignment.   Or – worse, we are providing perverse incentives to our employees and so we accidentally reward behavior we don’t want and disincentivize the behavior we do want.  99% of the time, this is the problem.  Occasionally though, you do get someone who is truly toxic and if you identify someone who is unethical – lying for instance – and doing it pathologically – you do need to get rid of them.  When I took over the volunteer management job at the SPCA I worked for – I had 10 volunteers and toxic employee volunteer relationships.   I reset the relationships and all, but one got on board and were very excited about the changes we made. Staff responded well too. After about 6 months, I had to fire the one volunteer who did not want to get with the new way of doing things.  But she made that choice for me by refusing to abide by the new rules and procedures – well after everyone else had adjusted.

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