How to Hire for Cultural Fit

Occasionally, I’ve sat down with a talented professional who started a new job, at a new company, not too long ago. “How’s it going?” I ask. “Weeelll” they hesitate, eyes down. “I’m feeling discouraged.” “Is it the job? Because to be kind, you are on a learning curve and sometimes expectations to jump right in are a little unrealistic,” I offer. “No, it’s that I don’t think I fit in here.”

Ah, the “not fitting in” problem. Something that usually shows up in the first six months of a new job, and can encourage an otherwise talented employee to leave before they’ve even had a chance to make a difference. Bad staffing decisions are one of the most costly for any organization, and not just by concrete visible metrics like the cost of sourcing, selecting, hiring, on-boarding and training. Quick and unexpected loss of talented staff costs the organization in more subtle ways, such as impact on morale of the team being left and reputation of the firm with customers and potential vendors and employees.

Hiring for fit is not a new concept. Yet it still tends to be a theoretical one, as evidenced by the number of people who find themselves misfits inside organizations. The surprise is that often these people have gone through rigorous interviewing and testing protocols, which makes not fitting in a harder pill to swallow.

Here are some ideas, inspired by my friend and colleague, professional recruiter Janet Wendell, on ensuring good cultural fit for new hires:

1. Don’t glamorize the job or the position. Many managers, especially those desperate to fill a vacancy and get resources back into the team, will make the job sound more glamorous than it is. They will talk about the ability to influence senior management, the ability to grow and develop. Some will boldly make promises about career progression in just a short time. Of course you want the person to see all the benefits of working for your company and your team. It’s also important to have them understand the challenges and pain that comes along with the joy. If you can’t bring yourself to be brutally honest, come up with one or two challenges that your team faced in the last year and share those stories. You need to see how the recruit will survive these unpleasant times. Another good idea is to let your favourite candidates have an informal coffee chat with a few team members. Give them permission to tell it like it is, and then don’t attend the meeting. There may be something about your leadership that the new recruit needs a heads-up on.

2. Ask about the candidate’s current culture. How would they describe their current organization in terms of team norms, acceptable behaviour and how things get done? Try to get a sense of how comfortable the candidate felt in that culture. Were they able to adapt to the cultural norms and were they able to integrate into the team? Ask them to identify what aspects of their existing company they found frustrating or that they disagreed with, especially at first. Ask what they did to fit in. You may find that the candidate doesn’t want to bad-mouth their organization, even if they are leaving it behind. A second interview is often a better place to ask these questions, as the candidate will know they are part of a smaller pool and they may be more open with their technical competence off the table.

3. Use a diverse panel to conduct the final interview. We often think of using a panel interview as a way of getting a broader perspective on the client, and to ensure fairness when scoring candidates. When putting together the panel you may want to diversify in terms of the panelists’ experience of your organization. A long-term employee, a newer employee, and someone who works with your team but not inside the team, are all good additions. Ask them to share something they personally know about the culture of the organization. Tell them you want to make sure that the candidate can fit-in and be successful. They can be coached (by HR) to ask a behavioural-event type question that probes how the candidate would cope in the real-world of work: “Tell me about a time when you worked on something and, at the last minute before delivery, additional demands were made. What did you do in that case? How did you manage last-minute changes?”

4. Ask directly about fit. Almost so obvious it’s not worth mentioning, right? Don’t forget to ask the candidate how they have gone about trying to ensure that a prospective company is a good fit for them. Don’t be surprised if they have instead focused on the technical aspects of the job – most of us want to make sure we are competent in a job before we apply. You can ask them to describe what value this type of job/role brings to the organization in their opinion. Before a second interview, suggest that they read up on your organization and give them any additional materials that they might not find on-line (internal newsletter, annual report), business plan, if it will help them understand the culture and the industry.

5. Ask references. This is an area that is often overlooked. As part of the reference checking process, design several questions to probe about how effectively the candidate “fit” into their previous organizations. Listen to the referee’s voice, inflection, hesitation and careful wording. If a red flag is raised you have a chance to check in with your candidate. It could be that they were “over sold” on that job, and that the recruiting process was not geared for fit-checking at all!

6. Extend your on-boarding and orientation efforts. You likely have an Orientation program, although many HR people say they would like to improve what is currently being done. Getting someone assimilated to the organization includes more than a few hours of training and pointing them to the internal website. Think about setting up an official buddy-program, where someone on your team helps the new employee for about a month. If the hire is in management, get them an experienced mentor right away, or ensure your HR business partners have time to provide cultural support. As a team leader, vocalize your expectations to the existing team – both before the new hire arrives and afterward in their presence. Tell team members it’s their job to help this person fit-in. While you may see some team conflict, be careful not to take sides or become part of a dysfunctional drama-triangle. Instead, gently guide everyone forward on a foundation of common goals and common interests.

Thanks to my friend and colleague, Janet Wendell, Staffing Consultant.
Find her on Linked In.

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