4 Ways to Learn if Candidates Fit Your Culture

Jun 8, 2011

Have you ever hired that dream candidate who met every criteria of the position, was courted by the hiring manager, and who negotiated that huge sign-on bonus and then crashed and burned within a few months?

There are hundreds of stories like this. Candidates with great education, experience, and who have worked for all the right companies often fail miserably because they don’t fit into the culture of the company.

Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, believes his success has been in finding the right people — the ones who fit comfortably into the corporate culture. So do a growing number of recruiters, hiring managers, and CEOs.

Ten years ago we didn’t hear very much about fit, although it has always been a concern and a part of the decision on whether to hire someone or not. But recently it has become the most important concern, often overriding technical skills or experience. As we move to flatter organizations, more team and project work, and increasingly collaborative work environments, finding people who get along with others and fit into corporate culture are essential to success. They keep harmony, they build community, and they create trust, all important ingredients for success in innovative global and competitive environments.

Personal fit should be an integral part of your candidate assessment process. Fitting into a culture, organization, team or job is not always easy. Some people feel more connected and more included than others, and those who feel the most connected and involved tend to be the ones who perform well and stay. People who feel that they belong to something important — something that engages and excites them — make organization more successful.

Candidates experience the corporate culture almost from their first contact with the organization. They see it in how they are treated, how diligent and caring the employees are, and what the work environment is like. As soon as they meet the hiring manager, they are assessing his or her style and values. When these are in alignment, good performance follows.

Likewise, recruiters and hiring managers are subconsciously assessing candidates from the moment they meet. That gut feel we frequently have about a candidate is probably based largely on how we see them fitting into our team and how well we think we will get along with them. This is often partly based on people who have similar interests or hobbies, who have had similar experiences, or who have known the same people. The more common connections with a candidate, the more likely they are to fit into our culture.

But the first step in more objectively assessing culture fit is to articulate what makes up the culture of your organization.

Know Your Culture

Most firms do a poor job of figuring out what makes up their culture and whether candidates would be comfortable in it or with a particular manager. Many factors make up the corporate culture. Some of those are as basic as work schedules and travel demands, but perhaps more significant are the ethics and values the organization believes in, the style of everyday management, and how communication takes place.

Take the time to understand what the ingredients are of your true culture, not the espoused one, and then you will be able to assess candidates with far greater success.

Four Ways to Assess Fit

Here are four ways to determine whether or not a candidate fits your culture.

Realistic Job Previews. Some firms rely on realistic job previews, where candidates get a glimpse of what it would be like to actually do the work. The Shaker Consulting Group has created these for firms such as Key Bank and Starbucks. Previews allow candidates to select themselves “out” of the interview process and also, when combined with testing, allow organizations to determine the potential quality of fit of a candidate. The downside is that but often candidates overlook potential mismatches and move forward.

Use Referrals and Internal Connections. Referrals have been widely written about here on ERE and elsewhere. They can be a gold standard for cultural fit because current employees, or even those who may not be employees but know your organization well, typically choose to refer people who will fit the culture. You can simply ask employees to focus on people who would be a good fit, rather on people with high skills levels or experience. The downside of referrals is that you can overuse your network and run out of good candidates, and it is always hard to get referrals consistently. It often requires a “push effort” to get people motivated and once the push goes away, effort falls back to low levels.

Use Social Networks. Social networks are a potentially highly effective way to determine cultural fit or at least to see whether or not a potential candidate communicates and interacts in a way that fits. By developing a Facebook or LinkedIn page and then engaging candidates in conversations, recruiters can learn a great deal about communication skills, language ability, and motivation. The downside is that these require time and effort; often, more than an average recruiter has available. However, it is probably true that candidates who have joined your network and participate in conversations at all are a better fit than those who do not.

Fit Testing. There are many tests of cultural and personal fit that can streamline assessment and that add a quantitative dimension to the selection process. These tests have been around for decades and have a solid track record when used properly. Of course, the downside of testing is the candidate’s acceptance and the time needed on both the candidate side as well as on the recruiters to interpret the results.

But whatever method or combination of methods you decide on, making sure candidates will be comfortable in their work environment and with their hiring manager should be a key consideration.

By getting candidates who are aligned to your culture, you will experience faster time to productivity, deeper involvement in problem solving, greater innovation, and less turnover.

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