If you’ve done any hiring at all, you’ve gotten a feel for how to figure out whether or not someone has the skills needed to succeed in any given role. You ask a few technical questions, perhaps ask for a writing sample or a quick presentation, whatever makes sense based on the opening you’re trying to fill.
But culture fit can be a trickier thing to untangle. It can feel incredibly subjective, related as it is to preferences and personalities. Luckily, there are steps you can take to help you discern culture fit in an interview, so you’re not left figuring out whether or not your new employee will work out three months down the line.
Understand your company and team culture.
This is truly the most important step of all. Culture isn’t something that can be objectively measured on a qualitative scale. “We have a great culture here!” is essentially meaningless.
As with the culture of a country or region, company culture is a complex mix of values, systems, and behaviors, the sum of which is better suited to some people than others. While there are plenty of ways you can have an objectively bad culture (petty, unproductive, illegal), “good” culture depends on the needs of the employees it serves.
You probably have some espoused company values, and you may have some for your particular team as well. Do you know what they are? How do these values relate to your goals and vision for growth?
What systems do you have in place, and what values do these reflect? (Hint: if they’re the same ones you identified earlier, you’re on the right track.) What values are behind how employees track their time? What values are behind how mistakes are addressed? What about how raises and promotions are handled?
Giving great emphasis to length of tenure might mean loyalty is a top value at your company, whereas focusing on personal achievements might mean more emphasis on personal drive, and looking at team accomplishments could mean you value collaboration.
Systems, of course, are put into practice by human beings. If your company states that there is a belief in work-life balance and there is a generous parental leave policy in place that nobody feels comfortable taking advantage of … your culture isn’t quite as family-oriented as the handbook might have people believe. What behaviors are rewarded? Which are censured? All this will help you to understand what your culture is in reality.
Use behavioral interview questions to help determine fit.
Knowing what you do about the culture of your company, how do you know, based on a brief, 40 minute interview, whether or not someone will be a good fit? Unless you’re hiring someone on as a temp, the only way you’ll get a clear picture of the kinds of environments in which they succeed and struggle will be by looking at their past experiences in some depth.
This is one area in which behavioral interview questions can come in handy. Those “tell me about a time when …” questions can say a lot about culture fit, if used effectively. Perhaps you want to determine whether a potential team leader would feel comfortable in your looser, less hierarchical organization.
“Tell me about a time when you felt proud of how you led your team on a project.”
“Can you walk me through what a normal day looked like while you were working on this?”
“What would you have done differently, knowing then what you do now?”
You might then go through the sequence again with “Tell me about a time when you struggled with leading a team?”
Yes, this will tell you a few things about whether or not the person is a competent manager in general. But just as importantly, it will tell you whether they are likely to feel comfortable with leading in your company.
Avoid mistaking fondness for fit.
It’s very easy to mistake “I like this person a lot, they seem similar to me,” for “this person is a good fit for this company.” Having too many people who think alike on a team can actually reduce performance.
And of course, this also runs the risk of bringing unconscious biases into the hiring process, as we may seem to connect better with those who share our race, age, religion, or national origin. It’s important to note in advance what it is you’re looking for when it comes to culture fit, so that you’re not swayed by personal compatibility once the interview arrives.