7/28/2015 | Erik Sherman

Company culture can become a challenge for the growing middle market business. As things get bigger, with more people, locations, products or services, customers and business partners, it's possible to dilute the culture responsible for that initial success. To help maintain the right atmosphere, companies have put an increasing emphasis on cultural fit in the hiring process.

Company culture is not about camaraderie; rather, it is about shared values that advance the business.

According to one study of corporate recruiters by assessment and development consultancy Cubiks, 82 percent of respondents said that ascertaining cultural fit was important during recruiting. Ensuring this aspect "can make organizations more productive and profitable," wrote Lauren A. Rivera, associate professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, in a New York Times article.

How Bias Plays Into the Process

As companies try to maintain their culture, they can create another problem with diversity. Face-to-face interviews allowed for by far the biggest measurement of cultural fit in the Cubiks study. The danger is that the interviewing process can be biased toward people who resemble the interviewers.

"Fit was different from the ability to get along with clients," Rivera wrote of observing one particular organization in depth. "Fundamentally, it was about interviewers' personal enjoyment and fun." She even mentioned one case where a rabid Boston Red Sox fan wanted to rule out a candidate who liked the New York Yankees, citing an improper fit. In a paper featured in Bloomberg Business, Rivera said hiring decisions happen "in a manner more closely resembling the choice of friends or romantic partners." These interviewers sometimes pass over the most skilled candidates.

Hiring for cultural fit could also highlight issues of gender or racial bias. Diversity is a hot-button topic in business, and rightfully so. Biased decisions in this area can become fodder for terrible PR. The high-tech industry has been roundly criticized for its historical emphasis on hiring and promoting white men. Over the last few years, the entire industry has weathered wave after wave of scathing commentary that affects customer loyalty and availability of talent, along with the constant potential for discrimination lawsuits.

Diversity plays a critical role in running a smart business. When everyone has the same background and outlook, it's harder for the company to connect with a broader range of customers and it will miss critical chances for growth. Luckily, company culture and diversity can easily coexist. The key is to understand what they both mean in the context of business and management, and then proceed from that understanding.

Set the Terms

Company culture is not about how readily employees would go out for a beer together. Camaraderie can help grease the wheels of business, but company culture must transcend individual idiosyncrasies and focus on your company's values and strategy. It shouldn't be personal. Companies need to find people who fit into that larger concept of culture. While a broad range of cultures, ethnicities, backgrounds and experience levels is important, a company cannot achieve diversity by filling out a checklist. From a business view, people from varied backgrounds and experiences help bring in vital differences in thought, ideas, positions and philosophies.

Define the Values

If you had to summarize company culture, it would come down to values. What type of relationship does the firm want to have with customers? Is there a top-down or bottom-up approach to making decisions? Does product quality mean "good enough to get through an inspection," or is it a driving force for how offerings are conceived, developed, marketed and improved? A cultural fit means that someone will naturally support those values.

Sadly, many companies don't explicitly define their values. In the Cubiks study, 54 percent of respondents said that their organization had a "clear definition of its culture." That means almost half the companies had no such clear understanding. And even if respondents thought there was a clear definition, was that definition written and available to all employees? One worker's idea of a clear definition might be different from another's. A company must explicitly define its values to create a more objective way of deciding whether or not someone is a cultural fit.

Measure the Results

Whether you're looking at a prospective hire's cultural fit or their diversity of thought, your hiring process must go beyond the interviewer's gut feeling. In the Cubiks study, only about a third of organizations said they measured cultural fit in the recruitment process. When hiring managers primarily look for qualities they would prize in a friend or romantic interest, they're not looking for what the company needs, ignoring the corporate values or diversity of thought that should be prioritized.

There are a number of tools available to help you measure a values-based cultural fit. Employers can institute realistic job previews that let candidates see what it would be like to work at a company. They can also encourage conversations with current employees through social networks, behavioral interviews and cultural-fit testing.

For diversity of thought, look to existing tests of creativity, discuss the company's current challenges and observe a prospect's opinions, experiences and background to evaluate whether they can help strengthen the company.

What are your company's priorities when hiring new candidates? Are there certain values that take precedence above the rest? Tell us by commenting below.

Erik Sherman is an NCMM contributor and author whose work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, the Financial Times, Chief Executive, Inc. and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch. Sherman has extensive experience in corporate communications consulting and is the author or co-author of 10 books. Follow him on Twitter and circle him on Google+.