Are you hiring a cultural fit? Do you actually want to?

Who should you hire: the superstar with great skills who feels like a poor fit with the culture, or the person with weaker skills but who fits in culturally?  Even though I believe in hiring the stranger, cultural fit really matters.

I once had an interview set up with a candidate who looked strong on paper.  Within one minute of meeting him, it was obvious that he was too crude in his language and thinking for the culture I was building.  I would have been embarrassed to have him introduce himself as affiliated with our company. I terminated the interview faster than I had ever done before.

46% of newly-hired employees will fail within 18 months, while only 19% will achieve unequivocal success, according to a study by Leadership IQ. Of those that fail, 11% lack the necessary technical skills. The remaining 89% (!) have other difficulties integrating into the workplace.

89% is startling, but even more startling is that a majority of employers are not addressing it sufficiently.  How many interviewers make a formal assessment of cultural fit? Even the most impressive candidate may turn into a mis-hire if he / she onboards into a poor cultural fit.  

Cultural fit includes both a firm’s personality – values, interpersonal skills, extracurriculars – and how a firm works – management, hours, pace, etc.  I know one well-known startup which, in its early days, required that every hire had to be interviewed by the entire team. Not only that, and any one person could veto a candidate.  My former colleague Ryan Armbrust, now Partner at Alliance Ventures, observed, “I think there is something to be said for the ‘airport lounge test’: If you don’t want to sit with somebody when stuck waiting for a plane, you probably won’t want to work beside them either.”

At the same time, “cultural fit” should not become a euphemism for hiring a bunch of people who look or think just like you.  “Don’t hire people you know”; if you do, you’re not going to get the best fits for your organization.  An organization which selects for the highest performers cannot possibly also be a homogeneous organization.  

It’s also worth assessing if your culture is what it should be.  Let’s say you interview someone who tends to be very frank, and therefore sometimes irritates people.  In your culture, people tend to speak indirectly about sensitive matters; they say, “If I could make a suggestion” and “perhaps” before saying, “We’re screwed.”.  On the one hand, you might say this person is going to irritate folks. On the other hand, is your firm burying problems rather than addressing them? Every hire shapes future culture; the new person might be an infusion of useful straight talk.

For employers, here are six steps that you can take to increase the likelihood of attracting candidates who will be cultural fits within your firm:

Get invites to exclusive events, jobs, and research.

1. Have a company mission + values statement and list it on the job posting / website.

Every firm has a culture; what is yours?  We recommend acknowledge it, and then share it with candidates.  In particular, highlight what is unusual—not generic—about your firm.   If everyone in your office is obsessed with sports, then mention in your job posting, “Benefits: get to attend home Rangers games with many of your colleagues!”    This allows for candidate self-selection based on their values and whether they would feel like they fit into the culture. For example, Contently explains, “We are a bunch of journalists and nerds trying to make something awesome… Our Mission:  Help journalists build careers doing what they love. Help brands become compelling publishers.  Help journalists and brands connect and tell great stories.” (Disclosure: I’m an investor in Contently.)

2. Obtain data on a candidate’s behavior, values, and “most preferred” and “least preferred” company culture

Executive coach Ben Dattner (I’ve used his services in the past) observed that it’s helpful to ask candidates to describe their ideal corporate environment, their “most preferred” culture, as well as to describe a place where others might like the culture but where they would not.  This is to discourage them from describing a company culture that no one would like. These open-ended questions encourage candidates to free-associate about their company culture wish list, and can enable you to assess whether their ideal company is close enough to your real company.

I recommend screen for cultural fit values and technical skills separately, in order to minimize the risk of missing something.  Some firms make a point of screening for cultural fit, before even bothering with the technical fit interview, on the grounds that it’s a waste of time to do otherwise.

3. Enforce a standard rating system

I suggest formally assessing against the mission values of the firm. Show the mission statement to the candidate, and give an example of the mission conflicting with itself or other imperatives.  E.g., “We have committed to a deadline of July 1 for a client, but the product still has material bugs. What should we do, given our cultural imperative of keeping promises?”

4. Assess a candidate’s interactions with other employees and make observations.

Take note if they fit in with the rest of the firm’s people by observing how the candidate participates in group exercises and how effectively the candidate communicates with the rest of the employees.  

Ask people at all levels (junior and senior) to interview the candidate.  After all, the candidate will interact with people throughout the organization once they start the job.  To encourage interaction, pay attention to how they talk with the receptionist, security guard, and/or other candidates in the waiting room.  The candidate is more likely to show his/her true self in these interactions.

5. Ask the candidate for their observations.

Dattner suggested you can also ask the candidate, “What have you observed about our culture in your discussions and meetings with us?”, to ascertain how attuned they are to the culture. You may get valuable feedback about how an outsider perceives you.

6. Execute a post-facto analysis.

Review any mis-hires retroactively to determine what went wrong during the interview process.  You can also interview any candidates you made offers to, but who did not accept, to get additional feedback about your company and its employment brand.

The candidate’s point of view

Here are some questions I suggest candidates ask before accepting a job offer:

Office personality and communication

  1. How have you responded to feedback from subordinates?  
  2. Can you give me examples of how you support your subordinates’ growth and development?
  3. What does my working group do together outside of work, if anything?  Friday get-togethers, other?

Job pace

  1. When do most people arrive/leave work?
  2. Am I expected to be on call and/or checking email often in case any work needs to be completed outside of office hours?
  3. How formal is the firm? (dress code, etc.)

Firm structure

  1. How many reporting layers are there?
  2. How often and how will I have access to senior management?  

Thanks to Ben Dattner, Justine Chan, Alice Cogan, and Kelvin Tan for their thoughts on this.  

(c) 2019, which published this previously.

Get invites to exclusive events and research.