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The truth about cultural fit interview questions

Posted by Hannah Price in Culture, Clarity
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If an employee doesn’t have the skills to do a job, you can train them. But, if they don’t fit your company culture, there’s not much you can do about it. You’re stuck at an impasse.

For obvious reasons, this is a situation you want to avoid. “Hiring employees that don't mesh well with the existing or desired company culture leads to poor work quality, decreased job satisfaction, and a potentially toxic environment,” says Brent Gleeson.

However, hiring for cultural fit is extremely challenging. That’s why I’ve created this article—to help you understand how real-life companies increase their chances of hiring people that suit their company culture.

There’s no magic bullet

When I started writing this post, I had a very different concept in mind. I wanted to call it “11 real-life cultural fit interview questions” and—you guessed it—there was going to be a list of 11 awesome questions that would help you hire the perfect people, time and again.

But, there was a problem. I soon found out: “there is no magic bullet question” (props to Sabrina Jaksa, former Head of Global Recruiting for Hootsuite, now with Carousell).

After reaching out to HR professionals, recruitment agencies, and companies with great cultures, I kept getting similar responses: that hiring for cultural fit was riddled with intricacies, challenges, and flaws.

Hmm. This changed things. My supposedly simple and straightforward article was becoming a lot more complex. However, if I committed time to it, I realized it would be a truly useful resource with honest insights into how real-life professionals are hiring with consistency and success. So, that’s what I did. Here’s what I found.

Three high-level themes for cultural fit hiring

While each of the answers holds its own unique nugget of advice, I started to notice a few key commonalities. (Which is reassuring, because it means that hiring for cultural fit is achievable!)

In fact, there were three key themes that emerged in the advice from each respondent. Here they are at a high-level:

  • Use company values. They’re a yardstick for assessing candidates.
  • Assess holistically. Try to get a real, full-picture of each candidate.
  • Hire diversely. Avoid hiring the same type of person over and over.

I’ve explored these themes in more detail in the next section, and included the pros’ answers to support these themes. There are great details in each of their answers, with some useful takeaways on how to achieve these goals.

1. Use company values

If you’re interviewing someone, you should have a clear idea of your company values (for example, if you priortize team culture, value craftsmanship, etc.). You should be able to assess how candidates measure against these values. Use them to guide your questions and when reviewing the candidates’ answers. They can help alert you to some serious red flags.  

#1. Ask questions directly related to your values

“We have a core set of values and I ask questions around those values. Particularly around teamwork and quality,” shared Gill Buchanan, Chief Operating Officer at Pure (a leading professional recruitment company in the UK).

“For teamwork, I ask things like ‘How would your colleagues describe your approach to work?’ or ‘How would your manager describe you at work?’. People are very honest about how they would be described and it does give insight into their approach to team dynamics. ’Why do you think teamwork is important?’ is another very useful question.

“For quality, I ask things like ‘Why do you think a quality approach is important and could you give me an example of how you have focused on quality in your role?’. This helps me to understand whether this is a key criteria for them.

“I also ask ‘When things go wrong, how do you deal with it—give me an example of a situation you dealt with in your previous role.’ This question gives insight into their energy and determination and ‘bounce back’ ability.”

#2. Be clear about your values to the candidate

At Culture Amp—a company that prides itself on putting culture first (and helping other companies create better places to work)—values come up often in their interviews. Here are two answers from their team.

  • “The key is asking open ended questions, but there is also a way to gain understanding of whether someone is living our values by how they respond to questions as well.

    “There are times where candidates are very open in their response, displaying the courage to be vulnerable (one of our values) or times where I give feedback on why they would or wouldn't be a good match for the role and how they take it (displaying the ability to learn faster through feedback).

    “Our values are essentially actions, so how candidates respond to questions can show us how they may or may not live our values without directly asking them.”
    Jessy Collazo, Senior Recruiter

  • “I once walked a candidate through our values and then asked her these questions:
    Is there one Value that particularly resonates with you? Why?
    Share how you may have bumped up against one of our values in your current role.
    What did you learn from that experience?”
    Kayleigh Mestrovich, San Francisco Experience Manager

#3. Use your core values as your yardstick

“We don't necessarily ask pointed questions around our values, but through other questions about work habits, personal style, and scenarios, this will usually shine through (or not),” said Sabrina Jasksa, Head of People Operations at Carousell (a mobile classifieds app headquartered in Singapore).

“For example, I was once interviewing a Director of Engineering candidate from a dying search engine company. He had 15+ years of experience. I asked how he dealt with performance issues, Performance Improvement Plans, and terminations. He admitted he'd never fired anyone before.

“This was a gigantic red flag at his level. It wouldn’t be in line with three of our core values (mission first; care deeply; solve problems) to leave low performers within a company or make them someone else's problem.

“While I’m sure he could have done the job, I don't believe his tenure in a huge organization would be helpful at our organizationa mid-size start-up (200 people in seven countries).”

#4. Ask about motivation to discover if your values align 

"I always delve into their motivations outside of compensation. I'm looking to see if what we have as our company values maps to what they value in a workplace," shared J.D. Conway, Manager of Talent Acquisition at BambooHR

"Your culture should be much more than a gimmick like 'work hard, play hard'. First, that doesn't actually mean anything to delineate your culture. You have to have definitions of culture that stem from, and map to your values. They should be specific enough to add clarity to the interview, but not so specific that they inadvertently screen out diversity of thought.

"This line of questions around motivation can be easily bluffed by interviewees, so it's important to ask follow-up questions to seek examples, and then ask a candidate's references to back up the examples the candidate gave you in the interview."

 
"Without a clear identification of company values, the phrase “cultural fit” rings hollow.”
Switch and Shift


2. Assess holistically

There’s no one question, or set of questions, that you can ask to know if someone is the right fit. You have to assess the entire interview process to make that decision and try to peel back the layers to understand the real person beneath the “best-self” in the interview room.

#1. Assess the candidate from the moment they walk in

"I think ‘culture fit’ is more than just a couple of questions. It's the entire experience with the candidate,” said Ryan Yeoman, Chief Operating Officer at Capterra (a leading software review website with a famously positive culture).

“Take into account when they arrive, how they greet people, how they interact with people (especially those that they aren't interviewing with), body language throughout the interview, etc. Does the complete picture fit?   

“I also believe that you have to be clear about what your culture is/values are first. When you are, you're then able to craft questions, or better yet, experiences/simulations that give you an idea of how well the person fits.

“Here is an example of this that I really like that touches on curiosity (which is critical for continual growth/growth mindset): What questions do you have? I usually tell candidates that I'll share anything I can with themgood, bad, and ugly. Then ask what they want to know. I look to see a couple things:

  1. Have they prepared questions? Are they deep, meaningful questions that show they understand our business, culture, and/or opportunities/challenges we face?
  2. Do they ask (follow-up) questions that touch on information they've gathered during the interview? Can they go "off-script" and think critically in the moment? 

The nature/scope of their questions reveals a lot about them and what they care about, and whether they are going to fit with our culture."

#2. Ask for a self-assessment

When looking for an honest insight into the candidate, Rodney Fraser (MD of Argyll Scott’s UK Technology Division) goes straight to the source. He asks the candidate directly:

“If someone met you for the first time, what would they assume about you that would be wrong?”

“I am looking for the person to self assess, to consider themselves from someone else’s perspective. People often struggle with this question but I find that if they are able to answer it honestly and genuinely, it tells me a fair bit about them as a person which is really important to me in terms of how they will fit into Argyll Scott’s culture.”

#3. Seek honesty at opportune times

“I always search for people that tell the truth, and I want to see their true selves,” said Dwight Ivany, a QA Test Team Lead at Jostle.

“Generally, I’ll ask an opportunistic question once somebody starts to go down a rabbit hole, or if they have something on their resume that I know has a known shortcoming. For example, if they’re a technical person, I might ask about a technology that I know is a little ‘Jekyll and Hyde’.

“If they’re able to admit the truth and be honest about the negative parts of those tools, I can begin to trust them. If they don’t, and if they tell me that something that’s extremely difficult/tricky is easy or straightforward, they may be liars. For me, that’s a major red flag.”

#4. Think practically

Katie Instone, Talent Acquisition Specialist, at Morgan McKinley in the UK, asks this very practical question: Describe the work environment in which you are the most productive and happy.

“From asking for this information, we are really trying to find out what needs to be present in order for them to be proactive and happily employedin turn leading to their success in the role. Having the right skillset for the job is only one factor in finding the 'perfect candidate'. Our most successful hires fit both the job and our workplace culture.”

"Measuring and understanding your workplace culture is like a truth-seeking mission. If you do it the right way, it’s not about generating a report card. It’s about uncovering workforce intelligence at the root.” Work XO


3. Hire diversely

It’s smart to think about cultural fit when hiring, but that doesn’t mean you should be hiring clones of your current employees or one “type” of person. Variety is important and your culture can include lots of different personality types.

#1. Avoid canned questions and seek opinions

“There are very few canned cultural fit interview questions that I ask. If you’re asking a canned question, you’re often looking for a specific answer. Which means you may end up hiring lookalikes,” shared Brad Palmer, CEO of Jostle. “That’s not what we’re trying to do at Jostle. There’s so much value in different viewpoints and ways of thinking.

“I try to dig into the details of their past to find out more about how they’ve individually executed projects and dealt with change. I want to find out what kind of situations they’ve been in and how they navigated them. For example, I often ask about how they’ve grown during their past roles, and how they view that growth. A demonstrated ability to grow and adapt is a must.”

#2. New people can add to your culture

“Rather than thinking about the idea of culture ‘fit’, which feels to me like a focus on shared characteristics or qualities, I like to think about whether someone will be a culture ‘add’. Everyone has the potential to add value to your culture, through their own unique background, identity, and experiences,” said Julie Rogers, Head of People at Culture Amp.

“Inclusion and ‘culture add’ go hand-in-hand; companies that create an environment where people feel included do so by welcoming individuals’ unique attributes, and drawing those into the conversations they have, and the products or services they offer.

“Workplaces do have distinct cultures, but when we’re talking about hiring people, it’s not about arbitrary fit. It’s about the sum of all the parts. There shouldn’t need to be a balance or trade-off between cultural add and inclusion.”

#3. Should you be hiring for cultural fit?

Sometimes, just sometimes, hiring for cultural fit may not be your priority. Yasmin El Debssi, Customer Success Manager at Jostle shared this story:

“My favorite question that I’ve been asked was from one of my previous CEOs. In the interview, he asked me: Who would you hire, someone who is culturally a great fit but you need to train them. Or someone who already has the needed skill and can start working right away?

“I said: If you’re hiring for a project that has a sharp deadline and needs a certain skillset, you should hire the experienced person. But, if you’re hiring for long-term fit and can see the applicant would be a strong contributor to your organization and you have time to train someone, I’d recommend hiring the person that you think best suits your company.

“I didn’t know it at the time, but that was what he was trying to decide in that moment! I didn’t have experience in the specific industry but otherwise had performed the same role prior, and he thought I would fit really well in their culture. So, he hired me.”

"Left unchecked, a warped understanding of culture fit could prompt organizations to justify hiring people who look, think, and act just like everyone else in the office.”
UK Business Insider


Conclusion

It’s important to hire people you think will be happy working at your company, and who your current colleagues will enjoy working alongside. However, it’s easier said than done. It seems that a fool-proof approach doesn’t exist. What does exist, is good advice from relevant, experienced people. Hopefully their insights in this article have given you some inspiration and clarification for your next hire!

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