Culture Club: Interviewing for Cultural Fit


Get Shift Done: Management

Image source: WOCinTech Chat on Flickr

Over the years, my really good teams have by and large been pretty strange. Not in a bad way, but in a way where every person on the team was an individual, and yet worked together as a single unit.

Each team had a unique culture, and the last thing I wanted to do was bring in a new person that would throw that dynamic out the window.

But I did have to bring in new people from time to time. And when that happened, I had to make sure they had the skills to do the job as well as the potential to mesh with the rest of the team.

I had to make sure new hires had the skills to do the job as well as the potential to mesh with the rest of the team.

It’s harder than you might think. Not only do you have to ask interview questions that ascertain cultural fit, you also need to know how to listen to, and interpret, the answers. How can you do both so that the new hire won’t upset your beautifully arranged apple cart?

Start by Knowing Yourself

I frequently start my processes with “look at yourself, first.” Really, if you don’t know yourself, what yardstick are you going to use to measure someone else?

When I say “yourself” in this case, I don’t mean just you. It also includes the team and the company. You need to find candidates that can fit with all three.

As Bill Emerson, CEO for Quicken Loans, recently said, “Every company has a culture. If they don’t define it, it’s probably a bad one.” So start at the macro level. What’s your company culture?

Is your organization open and flat? Highly structured? Are there layers of bureaucracy or can you walk into the president’s office at any time?

Remember, the real core of company culture isn’t about free pop in the refrigerator or an Xbox One in the break room. It’s about how people are expected to act, and how they are treated, as a whole.

The real core of company culture is about how people are expected to act, and how they are treated, as a whole.

The same is true of your team. While it is a subculture of the company, in a lot of ways, it’s a world unto itself. It has its own dynamics and you need to understand your team culture, too, before trying to bring in a new person.

Lastly, you need to understand the kind of leader you are. While you aren’t the culture of your team, you strongly influence it. If you’re a micro-manager, you can expect that to be reflected in the way your team interacts with you and with one another. If you are a leader that encourages questions and open discussion, your team will mirror that as well.

Having a self awareness about your company and team culture, as well as your leadership style, will lay the groundwork for measuring a candidate’s answers to your culture-based questions.

The Interview

Questions about culture should be asked during face to face interviews, whether that’s in one room or via a web conference with the video turned on. You should also conduct the cultural interview towards the end of the process as there’s no reason to spend time evaluating a cultural fit if a candidate does not have the skills to do the job.

Instead of using one of the many lists of cultural questions you can find online, draw out a candidate’s personality using your own set. You should form your own questions based on the groundwork from the “Know Yourself” section above as well as some goals:

  • Discovering their personality: you want to ask questions that draw out a candidate’s personality. Find out how they treat other people and they types of people whom they like to work with. Your goal here is to get an idea of how they’d fit in with your existing team.
  • Discovering how they want to be managed: some people flourish in a strict, rigid culture where they are managed closely while others want a more self-directed environment. Use your culture questions to understand how they want to be managed, and bump that up against the kind of manager you are as well as the overall company culture.
  • Get them to say, “No”: ideally, you want to ask a question that forces the candidate to tell you no, or give them a situation that would require them to point out a bad idea. If they don’t feel comfortable doing either, they will not be comfortable working for you and you won’t get what you need out of them.
  • Look for something new: don’t be on the hunt for someone who is a clone of your existing team. You want someone who can bring in different ideas and share them, someone who can enrich your team’s culture. If you keep hiring the same kinds of people, you’ll won’t get anything new or innovative from your team.

Lastly, consider having some of your team interview the candidate. There is significant value in having your team involved: they will have a better idea than you if they can work closely with the interviewee, and how the candidate will interact with the rest of the team. This gives you crucial insight that you can’t get from other leaders or even from your own observations—a peer level review.

Your team’s culture is a precious thing, and a delicate one. Just like a wild card in a group of friends can throw the entire dynamic of the group off, so too can a new employee who has a vastly different work style and needs than your existing team. In a group of friends, it can be an annoying situation. With your team, the wrong choice can cost you productivity, openness and innovation. So look closely, and choose wisely.

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