3 Ways One Company Determines If a Candidate Is a Good Culture Fit

October 24, 2016

You can have the most impressive leadership, the sleekest products, or world-changing ideas, but it won’t amount to much if your company can’t build a culture that attracts top talent and makes them want to stay. Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky cites “Don’t f**k up the culture” as one of the most important pieces of advice he’s received. And it all starts with hiring.

Unfortunately, hiring for culture is really hard to pin down. It’s not about hiring based on gut feeling or looking for people you can see yourself "grabbing a beer with." And, it should not be confused with broader diversity issues or discriminatory hiring, which can lead to excuses for rejecting candidates that are just a little too different.

Rather, true “culture fit,” or hiring for culture, means seeking an alignment in values, which vary widely. Facebook has a distinct culture that’s different from Google, from Twitter, and so on. Regardless, there are a few things every team can do to make sure they’re hiring according to their own unique culture and values. Here are three rules we follow that have helped Lever hire for culture fit: 

1. Pay attention to how the candidate treats others when they’re not in “interview mode”

Everybody puts on a good face for interviews, which aren’t necessarily the best predictors of actual job performance. In fact, a candidate’s behavior when they don’t think they’re being evaluated can reveal the most about their culture fit potential.

“Be nice to the receptionist” is an obvious yet useful piece of advice for job seekers. You never know who has the ear to the decision-maker, or is an influencer him or herself. Unfortunately, there are still plenty of candidates who saunter into interviews and see the junior-level staff as below them.

For example, earlier this year, Lever interviewed a Product Manager candidate with an impeccable background and substantial relevant experience, who impressed the panel with his intelligence and confidence. It looked like full-steam ahead for his hiring, until one of the junior members of the Product team hesitantly raised a flag.During his interview, the candidate had constantly talked down to this employee, interrupted multiple times, and dominated the conversation. Another interviewer who witnessed the exchanged backed up the story.

This perspective made the hiring committee realize that this candidate was, indeed, pretty arrogant – it had been masked by his charm and qualifications. Despite the candidate’s obvious strengths, we decided to pass; they weren’t worth the risk. The team decided then that no amount of skills or previous experience would make up for disrespect for colleagues or over-inflated sense of ego.

It can be easy to write off the toll that a culture mis-fit will have in the long-term for short-term expediency, but the culture you’ve worked so hard to build will always be more important than a single hire.

2. Design an interview process that’s a reflection of your values, and the strong culture fit candidates will thrive

Every company’s hiring process is different, and rightly so. The best recruiting teams are nimble, taking best practices and adapting to build a process that reflects the organizational culture. The hiring process should encompass not only the obvious steps of evaluating job-related skills, but also opportunities for both sides to learn about each other’s culture fit.

Your recruiting team must be the ultimate culture ambassadors, trained on designing and iterating on processes that help hire for values and motivational alignment. The recruiting team should also continually communicate with candidates to best set them up for success in both dimensions of job fit and culture fit.

For example, one of the most unique interviews in Lever’s hiring process is called the Career Trajectory (CT), a deep-dive into a candidate’s education and work history to learn about the person as a whole, not as a list of skills. (Read more about CT, from the perspective of a candidate here). It’s one of the final steps of being hired at Lever and can take up to 3 hours, so our Recruiting team takes extra care to ensure each active candidate understands and buys into our process.

We’ve found that of those who were skeptical or even downright resistant to the CT (e.g. “I don’t have time to come back for another 3 hour interview” or “Shouldn’t I have an offer yet?”) didn't end up getting hired. In contrast, most candidates have welcomed the opportunity to share and reflect on their professional and personal narratives. The candidates who stand out for being intrinsically motivated and valuing growth have been the most enthusiastic about the CT interview and unsurprisingly, have become top-performing employees.

If you design your hiring process to accurately reflect your culture, the right people will have the opportunity to shine. And those who weren’t going to be good fits anyway will either self-select out of the process, or at the very least, their uncooperation will provide you a useful signal.

3. Market your culture, and the right people will come to you

For most startups, one of the biggest challenges in recruiting is competing with everyone else for the same applicant pool. In a competitive talent market, the power is in the hands of job seekers. Given plenty of choices, candidates (particularly top talent) will evaluate companies carefully, especially early in the search when they’re creating a shortlist of companies to reach out to.

This is when a company’s mission and values allow their jobs to stand out in a sea of opportunities. For example, social media management tool Buffer uses their company blog to demonstrate their commitment to transparency, which strengths their employer brand.  

Similarly, Diversity & Inclusion is hugely important to the Lever team. Last year, we decided that we didn’t want the budding sales team to become a conventionally male-dominated environment. The obvious solution would have been advertising on minority-oriented job boards or joining some “Women in Sales” networking groups. But when you sell a job, you catch the interest of only those who are looking for one. Instead, sell your values and your mission. We wanted to reach the women out there who aren’t necessarily on the job market, but are dissatisfied with the typical sales environments that prevent them from realizing their full potential.

One of our sales reps, Jordan Leonard, wrote a blog post challenging the conventional wisdom that stereotypically-male characteristics like competitiveness is most important for sales, and argued that skills like relationship-building are just as valuable, if not more. Jordan wrote from the heart, opening up about the not-so-inclusive sales environment she had previously been in, and in contrast, how proud of she is working for Lever, where her personal values are aligned.  

Jordan couldn’t have predicted how much her article would resonate with people – male and female, sales and non-sales professionals alike. Posted on Linkedin, it took off immediately, garnering thousands of views and sparked a discussion about gender diversity in sales. And, we immediately saw results in recruiting: just days later, women in sales began applying to our openings, and many cited the blog post in their applications.

One candidate who was already in the interview process mentioned that her previous mentor sent her the article, which made her even more excited about the Lever opportunity. Months later, we have several women on Sales who point to Jordan’s blog post as the reason they applied.

You can have the best culture in the world internally, but you can’t stop before telling the world about it through authentic stories. Don’t limit your talent pool to those looking at job boards –  get on the radar of candidates who are aligned with your mission and values by writing and talking about them. You may not see the returns on this effort for a while, but when you do, the strong culture fits will take your team to new levels of accomplishment over time.  

Culture may start with hiring, but doesn’t end there. Instead of being left solely up to the recruiting team, it should be a shared responsibility across the company. When the entire team believes in and embodies the culture, that’s when word will spread and the right candidates will come to you.

Still not sure how to start nurturing those top talent candidates? Download the free ebook The Definitive, No Frills Guide to Sourcing and Nurturing Candidates, chock-full of tips and tricks to help you recruit those in-demand candidates.

Connect with me on Linkedin and find me on Twitter to hear about future articles like this - I’m a former recruiter and write about tips, learnings, mistakes, and everything in-between.

*Image from Spy Game

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