How to seek culture fit during interviews

You won’t know how important culture is until you hire someone who doesn’t fit with your team’s.

Let’s not take that chance, shall we? But wait…

What is culture?

I’ll keep this simple and in the context of work.

Culture is a collection of actions, rituals and values. It’s driven by the beliefs we develop over time about how we achieve success.

Examples of culture include:

  • Action – Collaborative work 
  • Ritual – Celebrating after hitting a milestone
  • Value – Ethical behavior above all else

Interviewing for technical ability is one thing. But how can you probe someone you don’t know about such concepts?

The wrong way to seek culture fit

With time pressure during interviews, you can get tempted to be direct and ask candidates if they share the same values. 

Let’s assume your company operates in a regulated or professional industry. Ethics would be a critical aspect of culture fit.

If you were to be direct, you’d ask: “How would you describe your views on ethical behavior?”

Resist the temptation to do this. It signals to the job candidate that it’s something you value in a new hire.

They can feign a positive answer like these:

  • “I think ethics is very important. I like to make sure everyone does the right thing just like I do.”
  • “Ethics is #1 in my book. Without it…”

Not only are the answers generic, they don’t tell you how the person would act in right vs wrong situation.

So let’s explore a method which will tell you the truth.

Here’s how you seek culture fit 

As I said above, it’s best not to address culture fit with direct questions.

Best to ask indirectly and follow one of these paths:

Drill into how they acted in a past situation 

“Tell me about a time you found yourself in a tricky situation. One where you had to choose between right and wrong. What happened? How did you deal with it? Why did you deal with it the way you did?”

Or test them with a hypothetical situation

“Think of a time when you caught a friend doing something they shouldn’t have. How did you deal with it? What was the result?”

These two lines of questioning should get you more data than, “Do you value ethics?”.

Another way to seek culture fit

Ethical behavior is a critical value for regulated and professional work environments. But in other spaces, it’s not as important.

Remember that people’s actions and rituals can also reflect culture. We can seek culture fit by looking at these.

In some cases, these are more important than values. 

But to do this right, we need to look at ongoing actions, not just once off measures people take.  There’s a term for this: habits.

Here are examples of work routines with related good habits:

  • Problem solving – writing everything down, using reference guides
  • Decision making – calling on expert help, playing out scenarios
  • Meetings – setting alarms & reminders, maintaining calendar 

Every potential employee will have good and not-so-good habits. Your job is to work out if theirs align with your team’s.

We think we choose our success. We do not. We choose our habits. It is our habits determine our success. 

Tom Foster, Habits, Success and Choice

Can we interview for habits? Yes, we can.

Imagine you’re hiring for a supervisor role. Here’s the rundown:

  1. This new hire will start and run meetings
  2. Your team faces constant time pressure
  3. Punctuality is critical to your team culture 
  4. You want to find out if a job candidate is consistently punctual

Once again, it’s not wise to directly ask a candidate, “Do you tend to run on time?”. What do you think their answer will be?

Once again, drill into a past situation

Tell me about a routine meeting you had to run in the past 
↳  I used to run a weekly all hands meeting.

What time did you usually arrive?
Usually 5 minutes before the scheduled meeting time.

What did you do to make sure you were on time?
I set an earlier alarm for Fridays – the day we had the all-hands. I also set reminders on my calendar to trigger the night before. 

What happened when you were late?
This happened once or twice. I’d ask a senior staffer to run through the agenda while I was on my way.

With this line of questioning, you learn that the job candidate has set habits – alarms and reminder – for turning up on time. 

More data to work with than “Yes, I believe in being punctual.” 

Don’t copy Branson’s Virgin culture

Richard Branson has spoken non-stop about how Virgin does this and that for decades. People listen. Carefully.

One of his soundbites is relevant to the concept of culture:

From our airlines to our call centres, and our office buildings to our gym floors, you will always see smiling people working together to get the job done. These personalities make our staff successful, and, in turn, our businesses successful – they also keep our company culture vibrant.

via LinkedIn: You Can’t Fake Personality, Passion or Purpose

Sir Richard values a good personality. Now personality is subjective, but I’ve worked out his idea of it is: fun, hip, friendly.

It’s clear from the vibrant uniforms Virgin staff wear, to those flight attendants who dance to explain safety announcements. 

This youthful culture makes them stand out from banal competitors in face-to-face consumer industries like airlines, gyms etc. 

That kind of differentiation directly translates to business results.

But Virgin’s culture is not one you or I could replicate in other industries like professional or technical industries.

Branson’s idea of personality is certainly nice-to-have.

But it will not drive the actions and values that create success in more serious industries.

Industries like healthcare, finance and even software startups.

If you ran a software startup, which of these 2 would you pick:

  1. Friendly, funky developer with sloppy code OR
  2. Slightly boring developer with solid code 

Ideally, I’d want a friendly developer with solid code.

But with only those 2 options, I know I better get ready to put up with a little dry conversation.