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Can You Screen Candidates for Cultural Fit

Joshua Spears

COO for Traitify | Film, Books & Animals, aspiring Kool-Aid man | Inventor/Visionary in Work

'Fit' is sometimes seen as a nebulous quality: either you have it or you don't, and the only way to screen for it is to go with your gut. But that's actually a recipe for poor hiring decisions.

Here at Traitify, we believe that fit can be analyzed by more than a gut feeling — and that it's important to do so!

Studies have shown that a mis-fit is the top reason new hires leave a job. (Whether they voluntarily showed themselves the door or were let go is uncertain.) So getting fit right is important, and that process starts long before you start interviewing a job candidate.

 

Learn Your Culture

Before you can know if a new employee will fit into your company's culture, you need to know what that culture is. Start by taking a cultural inventory: talk to executives and on-the-ground workers to find out what your culture is. Is your company hard-driving and competitive, or do you more value work-life balance? Does the company place an emphasis on teamwork or individual responsibility? Don't just write down what the CEO thinks the culture is — find out what it really is.

 

Ask Revealing Questions

According to talent consultant Jennifer Scott, asking candidates to describe their best boss or the best team they've worked with doesn't go back far enough. You want to learn about the values candidates "internalized long before they hit the traditional workforce.," she writes. That means asking things like: "Tell me about the very first thing that you ever got paid for. Babysitting? A paper route? Walking dogs? …What did you learn from that experience?" You may discover that a candidate values reliability and dependability, or honesty, or (in the case of the young house-sitter who simply threw away his competitors' flyers when the homeowners were on vacation) competitiveness.

 

Use (The Right) Tests

Personality tests are a growing factor in pre-employment screening, but not all tests are created equal. A test should be fair, consistent and have a track record of being accurate.

A survey of 200 Australian organizations found that a majority (69 percent) of HR/recruitment professionals said that questionnaires were the second-most effective method to test for cultural fit, second only to behavioral interview questions (78 percent, "Tell me about a time when…"). Less than two in five HR professionals in the survey actually use these questionnaires, despite saying that they are useful — indicating that there's lots of room to expand the use of such tests.

Know What Fit Really Is

Fit is about whether an employee's' beliefs and goals mesh with those of the organization. Lauren Rivera, an associate professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, puts it this way:

For Southwest Airlines, screening job candidates based on their willingness to provide a wacky experience for strangers contributed to the fun environment that enabled the company's financial success. Likewise, for the investment firm Bridgewater Associates, which seeks to distinguish itself through its pursuit of transparency and honesty, screening out potential hires who couldn't handle criticism made good business sense.

But, Rivera continues, fit has gone rogue. Instead of looking for traits like openness or ability to handle criticism, hiring managers are bonding with candidates "over rowing college crew, getting certified in scuba, sipping single-malt Scotches in the Highlands or dining at Michelin-starred restaurants." Rivera says she sat in on one meeting where a Red Sox fan argued for rejecting a Yankees supporter over "fit."

Fit can also be a euphemism for justifying cultural bias. Wharton management professor Katherine Klein says: "It's usually this sense that this person doesn't seem ‘like us,' like she or he won't party well or play well. There are all sorts of biases that can — and do — creep in."

"Fit should be based on data-driven analysis of what types of values, traits and behaviors actually predict on-the-job success," Rivera says.

 

Remember, too, that Fit Doesn't Mean 'The Same as Us'

Diversity in the workplace is important, not just because it "feels good." Teams that are unlike each other introduce more new ideas and even — one study found — help the team members process information more carefully. Diversity may create a little tension, but that's a good thing. According to the study, "The mere presence of socially distinct newcomers and the social concerns their presence stimulates among old-timers motivates behavior that can convert affective pains into cognitive gains" — or, in other words, better group problem solving.

You may ask your employees to refer new candidates to you, under the assumption that an employee that understands your culture would understand who will fit and who won't. But referrals also yield more homogeneity, since people naturally know people who resemble themselves in some way. This isn't to say referrals can't work, but you have to be careful about how you use them.

Fit can be a powerful tool for identifying which candidates will thrive in your organization — and which won't. Just remember that your gut isn't the beginning and the end of fit; there are time-tested tools that can help you determine fit in a scientific and balanced manner — and that's better for both job candidates and your company's bottom line.

Want to know more about how we use science to recruit and retain the right people with our assessments? Request a free demo and see what Traitify has to offer!

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