Cultural Alignment: Back to Basics

In today’s dynamic corporate world, cultural alignment has emerged as a significant factor influencing an employee’s decision to stay with a company. What does it mean and look like in practice, and why has it garnered so much attention?

January 2024

Dan Hunter


Cultural alignment refers to the level to which your people share the same values, vision, and aspirations that your company embodies. It is the harmonization between an individual’s beliefs and behaviors with the organization’s overarching culture, which includes its values, mission statement, and goals. It’s akin to finding a professional “home” where employees can feel they truly belong, resonate with the company’s atmosphere, and align with its ethos.

The notion of finding employees who fit well within a company is not a new one, but the idea of culture alignment, specifically, is an important concept that requires a clear understanding of what it includes and how to achieve it. To truly build a productive, loyal, and resilient workforce, it’s critical first to understand the idea of cultural alignment.

Knowing Yourself – Who Are You?

First, before any sort of alignment can occur, you need to know you, that is to say, your company’s culture. Three foundational building blocks that make up workplace culture are found in every organization: core values, vision/mission, and leadership.

Core Values

Core values represent the fundamental principles and beliefs that guide the organization’s actions and decisions. They define the organization’s character, establish expectations for employee behavior, and create a sense of shared identity. Values impact many aspects of an organization, including how the company views innovation and progress, the value of human relations, how people should relate and communicate internally and externally…and much more.

Vision and Mission

The vision and mission of an organization articulate its purpose, goals, and aspirations. The vision represents a compelling future state the organization strives to achieve, while the mission outlines the organization’s reason for existence and how it aims to achieve its vision. Serving as a compass, these elements provide a sense of direction, inspire employees, and create a shared purpose and meaning within the workplace.


Leadership plays a crucial role in shaping workplace culture. Leaders serve as role models, setting the tone for the organization and reinforcing its values. Their actions, decisions, and behaviors significantly impact the overall culture, employee morale, and organizational dynamics. If you want to understand a company’s culture, watch its leaders. How do they act? How do they make decisions? How do they strategize? How do they relate to their peers, employees, customers, and vendors? Observing a company’s leaders provides great insight into what the company values, promotes, and tolerates.

That may seem to wrap workplace culture up into a nice, neat package, but don’t make the common mistake of oversimplifying culture using a few words. It is a living, breathing organism that you create; it will evolve and grow, and you would be doing yourself and your company a disservice by summing it up with a catchy phrase and a static list of core beliefs.

Knowing Them – Who Are Your Candidates?

Once you have a solid (and authentic) understanding of your company’s culture, you need to understand your job applicants’ preferences and ideal environments. To be clear, I am not advocating that you tailor your culture to each applicant, but it’s naive to ignore the impact that onboarding a new employee into an atmosphere that is 180 degrees opposite of their preferences will have on their performance and longevity. That is essentially what companies are doing every day, and it’s exactly why the average turnover percentage in the US tops 30%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. These preferences come in five categories: workplace values, environment or atmosphere, the leadership style best suited to their work style, sources of motivation, and workplace personality/behavioral traits.

One key source where this information can be found is during interviews. Perfecting the art and science of an effective interview is a long process, but we can sum up the highlights here:

  • This individual is more than just a resume. Yes, a resume or CV holds valuable information, but those are words the candidate is choosing to show you, and they don’t speak to what drives the person…you can’t stop at just the resume.
  • Interviews are a two-sided endeavor. You obviously have a list of questions, but so should your candidate. They should be interviewing your company as much as you are interviewing them, so give them a chance to ask questions, or take time to elaborate on certain policies or benefits if they show interest in it. If they don’t have questions, help them by offering suggestions… “Would you like to know more about a typical work day here,” or “What can I share with you that would help you make a decision if we were to offer you a position?” Your candidate’s questions will tell you a great deal about what they’re thinking, what is important to them, and what their priorities are.
  • Ask good questions. This one feels a bit obvious, but you’d be surprised by how often this detail gets skipped over. There are all kinds of questions you can ask, but if you only have 30 minutes with a candidate, your question choice matters. So, try these:
    • Standard questions: Everyone has to ask, “Why do you want this job,” so if it’s mandatory, don’t skip it…but be prepared for stock answers to stock questions. If you can’t be creative with your questions, expect rehearsed and unhelpful answers that make it difficult to really understand the person.
    • Nesting questions: That being said, you can use nesting questions to dig deeper and really get to know the candidate. For example, if they want this job because it’s closer to home or their kid’s school, that may be an indicator that work-life balance is high on their priority list. My rule of thumb is three questions…ask a broad question, then a follow-up that narrows down the subject based on their response, and then a final question which is very specific and gets you solid intel.
  • Q. When you think about joining a new company, what is one of the most important things you want to find?
    • A. I want a place that values teamwork.
  • Q. Terrific, teamwork is important to us as well. Can you tell me about a time when you experienced a high degree of teamwork in your job?
    • A. My last team worked well together. We got along and everyone was friendly to each other.
  • Q. I can see why you would value that. Can you tell me how you define teamwork? What does it mean to you and why is it important?
    • A. I want to trust the people I work with and since we are together 8 hours a day, I want to enjoy myself.

By pushing beyond the superficial, you can understand what motivates someone. In this example we learned that teamwork does not mean that employees are interdependent on each other to perform tasks, but rather it’s a feeling of affiliation and trust. Those are two very different definitions and the initial answer you got told you nothing…only by going deeper did you learn anything useful.

  • Behavioral questions: This is the biggest beast to tackle and one of the most valuable question types. Many interviewers rely on behavioral interviewing and ask candidates about their work process or how they operate. Behavioral questions prompt candidates to reflect on past experiences, providing insights into their behavior, decision-making patterns, and alignment with cultural attributes.
  • Situational questions: These questions present hypothetical scenarios that require candidates to make decisions or navigate cultural challenges within the organization’s context. Ask candidates to share specific examples of demonstrating the desired cultural attributes in previous roles or situations.

Interviews are an important tool in establishing an understanding of your candidate and preparing you to figure out how aligned they are with your company.

Cultural Alignment

We have come to the apex of this article: finding cultural alignment. Studies and surveys consistently correlate with strong cultural alignment and longer employee retention. This isn’t a coincidence; it results from the employee finding the company and work relationships meeting their needs and generally fulfilling their expectations. Three major needs are:

  • Sense of belonging: Humans have an innate desire to belong, to be part of a ‘tribe.’ This tribal feeling in a workplace instills confidence and a sense of security. It is most often found when someone discovers a strong connection to their community and the organization in which they function. This connection takes the form of shared beliefs and aspirations, a fundamental agreement on norms, and the path forward.
  • Job satisfaction: It’s a holistic experience. Beyond tasks and to-dos, it’s about feeling valued, acknowledged, and in sync with the larger organizational mission. Employees want to know that their job is contributing to the larger goal, and when someone not only enjoys what they do but also agrees with the direction the company is going, then their engagement with their job increases exponentially. If a company can help its workforce connect with the organization’s overarching goals, then they have a powerful multiplier of human effort.
  • Commitment: When employees feel seen, heard, and aligned, their commitment to the organization’s goals intensifies. Employees engage when they feel safe to do so, and that safety is most easily achieved when people feel in sync with those around them…the shared values and focus create connectivity, which fosters psychological well-being. Nothing drives engagement and commitment to the team like cultural alignment.

One of the major benefits of cultural alignment is its bridge to retention. Employee loyalty is no longer tethered exclusively to financial incentives. The environment in which one works often trumps monetary perks. Employees who perceive a strong culture alignment are likely to stay longer and are often the most motivated, productive, and engaged team members. High retention rates trigger stability, reduced hiring costs, and a far more cohesive and stable workforce. Workzinga released a Culture Report that revealed fascinating insights into the connection between employees and cultural alignment. The report indicated that cultural alignment was a pivotal factor in retention, plus downstream benefits that directly impact a company’s bottom line; over 80% of those surveyed stated that they were far more productive, motivated, and creative when they found cultural alignment with their employer, not to mention they benefited from stronger psychological well being, both at work and at home.


As we wrap up, it should be evident that cultural alignment is far from a trendy HR phrase. It’s a foundational pillar explaining why employees choose to stay with a company. It can be likened to a symphony where each instrument, while distinct, plays in harmony with the others to create a beautiful piece of music. When an employee’s values, work preferences, and professional goals align with the company’s, a harmonious workplace atmosphere ensues. Recognizing and prioritizing culture alignment is imperative for businesses aiming to retain top talent and for professionals seeking their ideal workplace. It’s more than just a concept; it’s the bedrock of a successful, productive, and thriving workplace.