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Defining 'Cultural Fit' Before Hiring for a Position

Joshua Spears

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

Just how important is cultural fit, anyway?

The short answer: super important. Studies have shown that a poor cultural fit is the top reason new hires leave a job, so it's definitely crucial to pay attention to it.

First, though, what is fit? It's not what some employers seem to believe it is: a sense that "this person is like me." Some hiring managers make decisions based on whether a candidate "rowed college crew, is certified in scuba, and enjoys sipping single-malt Scotch or dining at Michelin-starred restaurants"…or even whether they root for the same sports team.

But what meaningful fit is really about whether is an employee's beliefs and goals mesh with those of the organization.

Forbes contributor Erika Andersen gives this example, explaining in simple terms:

"Let's say I'm a CEO, and I deeply value both customer service and efficiency. I believe that my company will thrive if I can bring our product to market in the simplest, most cost-effective way while delighting our customers … Let's then say I hire someone who has skills I need, but to whom neither one of those things is important - who values making the greatest possible amount of money, by any means, and doesn't really care about customer service or efficiency. That person…will not be happy in that environment, and no matter how intelligent or appropriately skilled, that difference in core values will make it difficult to impossible for him or her to succeed."

Sounds pretty straightforward, yeah? It can be. But you'll want to pay attention to signals of cultural fit other than just what a candidate says. Remember - they're auditioning for a job and will likely say what they feel you need to hear to make the hire.

Actions speak louder than words

What are your company's core values? It's not as easy as writing down whatever "sounds good" or what the CEO came up with on a leadership retreat. Your core values are things that your employees live every day. Those things might not be recorded in your mission statement, but they pervade every interaction your employees have with customers and colleagues.

Hubspot founder and CTO Darmesh Shah offers this insight:

"Your culture code says, 'Quality is sacred,' [but] one day, Susan from your engineering team lets you know a highly anticipated product feature that is about to launch doesn't meet your quality standard, and she's worried. If your first reaction is to say, 'Later we'll figure out what happened, and how to make sure it doesn't happen again, but right now we need to launch,' then, I'd argue that quality is not really 'sacred' (it might be important - and you really may go back and revisit the issue after the launch)."

And that's OK. Many companies have become very successful by being fast and iterating and improving products after they launch. But be honest with yourselves about what's really important. You'll make better hires if you embrace your true corporate identity.

There's no single "best" culture

In fact, in the classic business book Built to Last, authors James Collins and Jerry Porras studied 18 American companies with staying power, and found that while there was no one cultural attribute shared among the successful companies, the common thread was that each company had a culture, knew what it was, and how to hire for it.

So here are a few interview questions that might help you screen for culture. (You can also use other data like reference checks and personality tests.) These questions may change based on the cultural attribute you're seeking - but at the very least, we hope they'll spark some inspiration.

  • Joshua Dorkin of startup BiggerPockets says he likes to ask employees about their hypothetical "greatest work day." "If their 'greatest day' doesn't reflect our 'purpose' for them, they aren't likely a good match for us," he says.
  • Michael King of IPullRank says his industry is incredibly fast-paced, and his team places an emphasis on problem-solving and thinking on one's feet. So his interview question of choice is, "Can you tell me about a time when you were tasked with something you didn't know how to do, and how you overcame it?"
  • Ranan Lachman is CEO of Pley, a LEGO rental business. He told INC.com that he's looking for creative people. "If I interview an engineer whose only interest is coding, we might get an exceptional coder, but one that can't really help the team overcome the many challenges we face on a daily basis. We are looking for people with broad interests," he says. So he asks: "What can your hobbies tell me that your resume can't?"
  • Porch.com chief of staff Craig Cincotta wrote in Entrepreneur that among his go-to questions is, "What motivates you to come into work every day?" He went on to explain that "Great hires know that learning never ends and they maintain a high degree of intellectual curiosity throughout their day-to-day work…When you find someone who is thinking about the world in a way that is bigger than him or her, that energy is contagious."

Well, there you have it. The most successful business leaders around advocate strongly for a cultural fit litmus test. Just remember, though: the key to making a great hire is balancing the importance of hard and soft skills with the capacity to acquire those skills AND cultural compatibility. Both are key to unlocking your most efficient, powerful teams.

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