September 23, 2023
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How to hire for company culture fit


“We look for employees who fit into our culture.” How often have you heard that phrase from hiring managers? How many times have you said that yourself? And when was the last time you were confident that you didn’t just rely on your gut feeling?

Yes, exactly. Hiring is indeed a powerful way to build and preserve a company’s culture. With employee engagement being at an all-time low of between 21 and 31 percent, some may even say it is the key to staying competitive in an age of talent shortages. And indeed, in a survey for Korn Ferry, 47 percent of executives rated culture-fit as important for them. In another study, 84 percent of executives ranked culture as critically important to business success.

Culture-fit can reduce the speed to onboard, increase engagement, improve retention and increase performance. It is, therefore, quite understandable that managers look for compatibility between future employees and their organization.

But to most it is not clear how that is actually achieved. How do you interview for what behavioral science calls person-organization fit? What questions do you ask to find out if there’s congruence between a person’s style or values and an organization’s culture?

The first and most important step before hiring for culture fit is to understand your organization’s culture. Without knowing what it is that drives your culture (and, ultimately, your performance) it would be very difficult to hire the perfect employee. This requires a bit of soul searching that is best done not by yourself alone, but with others. Now, let’s assume that most companies — big or small, established or just starting — want to avoid troublemakers, they want employees who are self-directed and flexible and yet capable of understanding rules and accepting guidance, as well as those who are both team players and high-performers.

First, focus on the facts. Allow applicants to talk about their past experiences at the beginning of an interview. This provides a better opportunity for them to be authentic and for you to see the real applicant.

You might start with an open-ended question about what it was like working for a previous organization or boss. That usually gives you enough material to dig deeper.

Ask your interviewee to describe situations when they went above and beyond, when they brought change or improvements to their work environment, have them recall situations when they experienced conflict with others, or try to find out what drove them crazy in their last job. And don’t forget to always dig deeper — make your interviewee explain situations by asking “why” questions.

The second set of questions to assess culture fit is spent asking about their POVs — preferences, opinions and views. Ask them what their ideal job would be, ask them what makes them happy and productive in their work, what they are really good at and what inspires them. Try to find out how important it is to become friends with co-workers, particularly bosses and direct reports. Inquire about the single most important feature in their work environment. And if you sense any discrepancies between what the interviewee has told you about past experiences and what their POVs are, address them.

Throughout an interview, it may be more important for the hiring manager to listen carefully than to talk. Talking may easily turn into leading the interviewee to desirable answers. Toward the end, however, you should become more articulate about your own company’s values. Interviewees should know who they are dealing with.

What companies also shouldn’t forget is that the perfect hire may not be out there. The good news in such situations is that people can be trained and socialized to fit a new culture. It may even be good to bring elements of change to your organization by hiring someone who’s anything else but a culture fit. Innovation happens when ideas collide. Sometimes cultures need to collide. But that could be very risky business.

• Gerhard Apfelthaler is the dean of the School of Management at California Lutheran University.