Blog Post

Hiring for Culture Is a Win-Win—Here's How to do It Right

Hattie James

Guest Contributor

To hire for skills or to hire for culture? It's a fine line, and most organizations hire for the former and indoctrinate recruits to the latter.

But failing to consider culture from the beginning has its consequences. As author and speaker Louis Efron writes in Forbes, there are six main reasons employees quit—and all six things come down to organizational culture. This turnover has a huge impact on your organization's bottom line: It hurts the productivity of the employees who remain, hampers service to customers and, ultimately, cuts into profits.

So, how do firms avoid this "culture" turnover?

Don't Just Focus on Skills

Traditionally, organizations hire for skill. Job seekers present themselves based on their skills, and this can often build a wall around culture discrepancies. Résumés that perfectly match the hard requirements of a job look great on paper and speed through applicant tracking systems, but skills shouldn't be mistaken for talent—especially skills that can be learned on the job.

A lot of the conversation around specific skills vs. talent comes down to industry and seniority: If a tech company is looking for a product manager, it should be a given that a recruit knows the basics of coding. Recruits who do not have the foundational skills for a particular job or even industry should not be applying for those positions.

But there are some skills or experiences that don't necessarily need to be part of a job requirement—while a records manager should know how to create a taxonomy, on-the-job training is what will teach her the skills to learn the organization's management software. It is only a bonus if she already knows it.

Culture Can't Be "Taught"

As opposed to skills, you cannot teach organizational culture. Culture is the collective effort, values, and personalities of everyone in the organization, from the C-suite to the junior-most employee.

Culture comes down to the values of the organization and how employees model those values—not how many perks you offer. At Amazon, one of its most influential values is "Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit." As an Amazon employee, if you have an opinion about something, the organization values both that opinion and your ability to defend it.

An employee who doesn't value her own opinions enough to properly defend them may not be a good fit for a company like Amazon. The opposite of this coin is that Amazon expects its employees to respect others' opinions and views. Hires who can't disagree, commit, and respect will likely not last at Amazon.

But "hiring for culture" isn't as easy as it may sound—you can't simply look at a candidate and guess if she will "fit in" with the others.

How to Evaluate Cultural Fit

In his presentation Culture Driven Companies, Dr. Mark Allen defines corporate culture as "what it feels to be part of an organization." In other words, corporate culture consists of not just the values of the company, like Amazon's "Have Backbone," but also of the unwritten daily rituals of a company; the unspoken rules; the "how we do things here."

How, then, do you evaluate a candidate for organizational culture fit? Many interviewers do something similar to Katie Buton's suggestions in Harvard Business Review: simply ask questions about values.

  • What type of culture do you thrive in? (Does the response reflect your organizational culture?)
  • What values are you drawn to and what's your ideal workplace?
  • Why do you want to work here?
  • How would you describe our culture based on what you've seen? Is this something that works for you?

Unfortunately, as Will Stanley rightly points out in an article for, asking these values-based questions won't always lead to accurate answers. Instead, Stanley recommends asking behavior-based questions to understand a candidate's values in the context of a real or hypothetical situation. Instead of asking a new hire to tell you about his values, ask him questions that show you his values.

For example, if your organization values collaboration and opinions, like Amazon does, ask a behavior-based question like, "It's your first month on the job. You are in a team meeting and asked to offer constructive criticism on a colleague's work. What do you do?"

Certainly, a recruit can say he will act a given way and then behave completely differently—however, a behavior-based, contextual question is much more likely to give you an accurate answer of his values than asking about values directly.

A Two-Way Street

Remember: Cultural fit isn't about sliding into a mold, it's about starting with the same foundational character.

In organizations, cultural fit is about the two-way street of growth. Organizations don't grow without employees who are in it for the long haul. New hires that don't fit the culture are just as likely to leave as new hires that don't arrive at the organization with basic skills necessary, like HTML for a coder or taxonomy for a records manager.

The turnover of these employees takes a toll that isn't just fiscal. It lowers morale for remaining employees, adds to their workload and hinders the growth of the organization in other ways. When you hire for culture, everyone benefits. The new hire finds an organization in which she will flourish, and the organization finds an employee who will contribute more than hours worked. It's a win-win.

Photo: Creative Commons

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