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5 Ways to Find Candidates Who Fit Your Culture

by Aug 8, 2012, 5:06 am ET

A common mistake of managers is hiring based solely on the candidate’s résumé and skills. This is probably why you’ve crossed paths with so many highly skilled jerks during your career.

Determining a cultural fit isn’t as simple as describing your work environment and then asking the candidate for a thumbs up. In fact, you don’t want to offer details about your culture until near the end of your interview process. Don’t tip your hand by giving information that will coach them on how to answer your initial questions.

Here are my top five techniques to determine if a candidate fits your culture:

  1. Ask “What was the worst company culture you worked in?” I love hiring people who had a genuinely awful work experience. I know that might sound odd, but it gives the candidate the appropriate perspective of a truly difficult work environment. For example, Josh told me during an interview that the five brothers who owned the company he worked for frequently squabbled. I’m not sure if punches were ever thrown, but they swore and yelled at each other before storming out of meetings. One brother would give Josh direction, then another brother would stop by Josh’s desk and say, “Forget him. Do this instead.” How would you like to deal with that every day? Josh has been a strong employee of ours for 11 years now. His job isn’t easy, but he appreciates that our culture encourages cooperation. Candidates who haven’t experienced a poor work environment may feel the grass is greener at another employer when your job gets hard.
  2. Be skeptical of the candidate’s answer. Determine if the candidate’s past work culture was problematic or if the candidate is overreacting. One sales candidate I talked with said he was miserable at his current company, but when I pressed for details his main complaint was that his manager required him to complete monthly reports. An operations candidate was angry at her employer because she was required to make deadlines. My company requires sales reps to turn in paperwork weekly and hinges operations employees’ bonuses on deadlines. These candidates were clearly not a fit for our company, but I didn’t learn that until holding out for details of their “terrible” work environment.
  3. Ask “How did you cope in that culture?” This question will provide insight into several character traits of the candidate. Did they persevere through the tough times or quickly bail? Did they stay enthusiastic or did their attitude sour and harm their co-workers? When describing the experience, do they exhibit kindness? Are they overly bitter or are they mature enough to realize they learned something from the experience?
  4. Near the end of your interview process, detail your company culture. Put it in writing. Prior to the final interview (where we discuss our aversions of the candidate and they detail their aversions of my organization), we give candidates documents that detail our company’s culture plus an introductory letter from the company president. Here’s a passage from that letter: “If you ever feel we are not adhering to the concepts outlined here with you or anyone else, we would truly appreciate you making us aware of it. If you don’t understand the reason behind an action or policy, or you don’t believe appropriate changes are being made — and your supervisor is not able to adequately make changes that align with our principles or help you to understand why we are doing what we do — please let me know. We are striving to make this a fair and safe work environment where high-character, self-governing, independent-thinking people thrive — both at work and in life.” 
  5. Set them up for future reference on your company culture. The communication technique of Set Them Up For Future Reference — I convert it to the fun acronym STUFFR — consists of identifying and understanding a potential problem and discussing it with the candidate in advance. You also need to note the candidate’s (and your own) exact words and commitment to not failing. My company doesn’t care if someone generates a zillion dollars in new revenue. If that person doesn’t treat co-workers right, we don’t want that person on our team. Here’s what I say to candidates: “You can take what I’m about to say to you two ways. You can take it as me wagging my finger in your face saying, ‘We have a bunch of good, honest, kind, hard-working people here. Don’t screw it up. I’ll throw you out of here because I don’t want one person ruining it for us.’ Or you can take what I’m saying as our company making a commitment to you that you don’t have to tolerate anyone screaming, yelling, swearing, or belittling you. If someone breaks the Golden Rule, let me know and we’ll put a stop to it. Are you OK with that?”

Finding candidates who fit your company doesn’t have to be a mystery or guessing game. If you execute the above questions and conversations during your interview process, you’ll hire employees who will enhance your organization’s culture.

Happy hiring!

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  • Howard Adamsky

    Interesting article but I am not sure I understand why we need to hire people who “fit into our culture.”

    Hiring those who fit a cultural profile does nothing for enhancing diversity of thought and approach to problem solving.

    I maintain that hiring people do not fit the culture can at times be the very best thing you can do to enhance organizational bandwidth.

    I believe that seeking individuals who share our values is what we really need to be doing.

  • Richard Melrose

    There’s value in providing realistic job previews (RJP) that establish activity, behavior and performance expectations for a job and showcase “what it means to work here” and “what it’s like to work here”.

    Rather than interviewing for “cultural fit” I would recommend validly assessing for “job match” in three domains: cognitive, behavioral and interest. If the candidate matches sufficiently well (i.e. in the three domains and overall), then conduct structured interviews based on the assessment results, as well as the knowledge, skills and abilities (KSA) required in the job, based on Job Analysis.

    Employers can validly assess an individual’s assertiveness, sociability, accommodating, decisiveness, manageability and independence. Employers can determine the range of cognitive, behavioral and occupational interest scores exhibited by top performers in any particular position. They can compare the two directly (i.e. without subjective biases) and use structured interviews to objectively probe for additional valid, job-related details.

    If candidates can, as an exercise, readily provide work samples that demonstrate job-related content knowledge and process capability, ask for that, too.

    Employers’ selection processes generally exhibit low predictive validity for job performance and job learning. They also exhibit low levels of regulatory compliance (Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures). Establishing the job-related validity of the interview process recommended here would be difficult, as would assuring that the process was uniformly applied to all job candidates.

    r.melrose@vision21.us

  • http://www.verticalelevation.com Carol Schultz

    Jim: Interesting article, but I think you need to delve more deeply with this line of questioning.

    For example, instead of asking, “What was the worst company culture you worked in?” I’d suggest you ask something like:
    *”Tell me about the most difficult culture you’ve had to work in and how you dealt with it?”
    *”What worked and didn’t work with respect to the way you handled it?”
    *”What would you have done differently to elicit a better result?”

    This is a bit different than your question, “How did you cope in that culture?” How an individual copes is distinctly different than whether or not their coping was successful or not. Make sense?

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  • http://www.sparkhire.com Josh Tolan

    These are great tips on finding candidates who will fit in at your organization. The key, as you mentioned, is to ask questions about their prior experiences and see how they handled themselves in difficult situations. Don’t just ask the standard questions, because they won’t tell you much about the candidate’s personality or how they will fit in your company. Whether your interview is in person or through online video, asking specific questions about past workplaces will give you a better idea of how the candidate will fit into your workplace and what sort of value they will bring.

  • http://betterweekdays.com Chris Motley

    Jim, thanks for the article. As I’m sure you would agree, it is a complex subject because there is often a difference between the culture a company actually has, versus the culture the recruiter is trying to sell the candidate. There is also a difference between the culture a company needs to overcome real challenges versus the culture they currently have. The question is how do you reconcile all of this? Not to mention the bias that is introduced in evaluating one’s culture fit without a 3rd party (scientific) tool that has been validated to compare one’s “culture” on an apples to apples basis with other candidates. Thoughts? What is the value of validated assessments (Hogan, Birkman, and the like) in the selection process?

  • http://www.lasallenetwork.com Tom Gimbel

    Another way to judge a candidate’s culture fit is to have multiple people within an organization meet them. This way, the candidate is able to evaluate whether they get along with their potential co-workers, and the company is able to determine whether the candidate is truly a fit.

    I share more about culture fit and creating a dynamic company culture on my blog: http://www.pastfive.typepad.com if you want to check it out.

  • Richard Melrose

    Chris,

    You mention “validated assessments” and cite Birkman and Hogan by name. Validated for what, by whom?

    All personality tests have very low predictive validity for job performance and job learning according to, among others, the editors ( http://bit.ly/H2mKTZ ) of the leading journals who review such claim-making article submissions.

    Peter Cappelli of The Wharton School wrote ( http://bit.ly/Hy9uJG ) “For practitioners, however, the conclusions from these editors are remarkably useful and unambiguous: “Don’t rely on personality to assess employees”.

    The only validation that matters (ref: Schmidt and Hunter) is the statistically calculated predictive validity for job performance and job learning, of a particular selection process, referenced to a particular job and corresponding job analysis.

    It’s very important to recruiters and their clients that unsubstantiated claims do not pass for predictive validity.

    r.melrose@vision21.us.

  • http://betterweekdays.com Chris Motley

    Hi Richard,

    I appreciate your comments and the links provided but I think you misunderstood what I was trying to express and I’d like to clarify to see if it would modify your position. It is important to mention that I have no economic interest in Birkman/Hogan or any other big branded assessment tool, but am VERY curious to the value that a recruiter would place on a 3rd party assessment that measures not only one’s personality, but one’s values, motivations, and their skills (or one’s perception of his/her skills) so that recruiters make better hiring decisions. Having only played the role of a hiring manager, I’d like to know if one candidate was motivated by an entrepreneurial challenge versus theoretical discovery. I agree with you that looking at one’s personality has as much value as buying a computer because of its hardware alone; the operating system is equally if not more important (Mac vs PC). Anyone can see that the entire recruiting supply chain is broken, and perhaps the current selection process is what needs to change.

  • Richard Melrose

    Chris,

    My message was directed at personality tests, not you.

    The “selection process”, as most practice it, is broken to the detriment of society, employers, recruiters and talent. It’s not even a ‘process’, by any stretch of the imagination.

    The Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures do provide the best practice prescription. Yet, even though the Guidelines also establish the regulatory requirements to avoid allegations of discrimination, in the presence of adverse impact, few employers even try to comply. Most recruiters don’t care, either, because the Guidelines clearly make compliance (and associated fines and enforcement actions) the employer’s responsibility.

    Independently of the Guidelines, we know (via meta-analysis, Schmidt and Hunter, 1998) how to best use the right type of assessments to boost predictive validity for job performance and job learning. Among other findings, “general mental ability” explains just over half of the variation in job performance and job learning. Integrity testing, structured interviews, work samples and job knowledge assessments all add more than “training and experience”, “years of education” and “reference checks”.

    As noted above, “personality” assessments don’t add much at all and, in the absence of general mental ability assessment, leave most of the variation in job performance and job learning unexplained.

    We can implement selection processes that work much better for employers and employees. The necessary tools and process knowledge are readily available. The ROIs for employers are huge. The differentiation opportunities and performance improvements for recruiters are likewise very large.

    As Peter Drucker wrote: “What you have to do and the way you have to do it is incredibly simple. Whether you are willing to do it, that’s another matter”.

    Employers and recruiters have had the recipe for success for more than three decades. Employers have had the compliance incentive, as well. Drucker also wrote about staffing and promotion decisions: “In no other area of management would we put up with such miserable performance. Indeed, we need not and should not. Managers making people decisions will never be perfect, of course, but they should come pretty close to batting 1,000—especially since in no other area of management do we know as much.”

    It’s time to use the selection process knowledge that we have to advantage and stop playing the legacy game – i.e. using résumé reads, application reviews, unstructured interviews, and subjective judgments about this or that (including cultural fit), as if they mattered.

    r.melrose@vision21.us

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  • Ken Schmitt

    I found this to be a great article. What stood out to me most, was that many of these questions are not new, but they are phrased in a way that allows for and initiates more conversation. Having a candidate discuss what did or did not work in detail allows the hiring manager to get a feel for, as you said, whether or not a candidate’s reaction was warranted or an over reaction.

    I think most of your suggestions are a new and better way to get the answers interviewers have always been looking for. The old school standard of “what are your strengths and weaknesses” never allowed for much more than a list to be provided. Secondly, it was a rare candidate who used that as an opportunity to share an actual experience through which they could show their strengths in action. But by asking how they “coped” or “handled the worst job” an interviewer can clearly see how adaptable and innovative a person can be. These questions lend themselves to being great indicators of a candidate’s true behavior.
    Ken Schmitt
    http://www.turningpointsearch.net

  • Keith Halperin

    Thanks Jim. If I may suggest a slight change:
    From: 5 Ways to Find Candidates Who FIT Your Culture
    To: 5 Ways to Find Candidates Who FIX Your Culture…

    I believe there are at least two assumptions operating here
    1) (As Howard discussed) You need people to “fit” aka, “conform” to your culture.
    As long as they do the work well and *aren’t too disruptive (in the old sense) of others doing THEIR work well, then I think this “ain’t necessarily so.
    We may want to be surrounded by people just like us, but this isn’t always good thing in a work environment.

    2) Your culture is nourishing and functional and not toxic and dysfunctional….This is a very dangerous assumption to make, and often false.

    Cheers,

    Keith “Not Fitting In for Over 50 Years” Halperin

    *Another argument for tele-work.

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