How to hire for "culture fit"

How to interview for culture fit

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"How do you get people to ... get it?"

That question came from Jane, someone I was talking to at a recent networking event. The theme of the event was "new forms of leadership," and, more specifically, what "being a boss" means in today's business climate. Jane was explaining that her organization is an "open" organization, where the hierarchy is secondary to the merit of ideas—no matter where they came from.

But Jane told me she struggled to hire people who not only understand this but are also excited about it (as opposed to people terrified by the prospect of a culture in which everyone has an opinion about your work and is not shy about sharing it). Apparently, Jane's organization had recently hired a few people who, ultimately, hadn't worked out.

The problem, Jane told me, was something that's critical in open organizations: "cultural fit." And the more Jane and I talked, the more I realized how important designing job interviews to specifically address this "fit" has become today.

It's not for everybody

Hearing Jane's conundrum made me think of Bill.

I remember Bill vaguely from my early days at Red Hat. When I'd bumped into him in the hall and introduced myself, I'd learned it was Bill's first week on the job as a partner relationship manager. He'd just left a similar role at a major enterprise hardware company. Bill looked like what I would call a traditional business person; he was wearing a suit and making copies at the Xerox machine (two things I didn't see many people do at Red Hat in those days). He looked slightly uncomfortable, but I didn't think too much of it. A week later, I heard he'd quit—went back to the giant enterprise hardware company.

"Ran for the hills", someone said.

"I think we scared him off," said someone else.

We laughed, acknowledging that Red Hat "wasn't for everybody," or could seem "a little crazy" at times.  

But for Bill—and Bill's manager—I'm sure the sudden departure was no joke. Anyone who's hired someone who didn't work out knows what an expensive, emotional, and time-consuming mistake that can be for everyone involved.

I asked Jane (who had just "separated" from an employee who, like Bill, didn't "fit" with her organization) how she explained her company's culture to candidates.

Did she explain what the culture was like, especially the part about the diminished importance of hierarchy? Did she make sure candidates knew about the organization's emphasis on openness and sharing?

She told me she did.

But did she ask her candidates questions designed to determine whether they were comfortable with this idea, or had been exposed to it in the past?

Well, sort of, she said.

Did she give detailed examples of what this looks like in action, by telling real stories from her own experience?

No, she said. She hadn't done that.

Moving culture to the foreground

Jane isn't alone. Sometimes, interviewers don't sufficiently stress the role of culture (and "cultural fit") when they're hiring. To avoid this, I ask a specific question during interviews in order to test a candidate's cultural fit for an open organization:

"How would you describe the culture at your current company?"

As I listen to the response, I'm searching for a few things: Does this person know what I mean by "company culture"? How much do they pay attention to it? How important do they think it is? Do they reveal how they feel about it as they describe it?

To follow up, I ask (directly) what the candidate likes and doesn't like about that culture. I might also ask the person to share a story from the first few months on a job as a way of determining whether the candidate found adapting to the culture of their current company difficult. The way people describe challenges with a culture reveals a lot about their preferences and relative comfort zones.

Red Hat has formalized the process of hiring for cultural fit. Our People team designed a hiring framework called "Right for Red Hat," and it explains everything a hiring team needs in order to evaluate candidates' "fit" for our organization—both in terms of Red Hat business goals and Red Hat cultural attributes. The framework details how to structure an interview team, what kind of questions to ask, and how to evaluate answers. In the spirit of transparency, we present the framework to prospective candidates via our job portal. The interview isn't just about us evaluating the candidate. It's also about them evaluating us: are we right for them?

Getting it (right)

Our questions are straightforward. Some concern specific technical or domain knowledge. Others we've designed to gauge problem solving, strategic thinking, and leadership qualities. We don't ask "brain teasers," riddles, or questions that test a person's general knowledge. We want to hear specific stories that emerge from past experience; we want to learn how candidates approach different situations, how they react to circumstances, and how they learn from successes and failures.

By listening to the way someone tells a story about an experience they've had, we're listening for clues about their preferences and working style. Does it sound like the candidate defaults to making decisions in a transparent, consultative way? Or does it sound like this person prefers a more traditional, top-down, decision-making approach? Does the candidate seem comfortable with opening work to scrutiny from anyone who's interested? Do they tend to share their work sooner than later and seek out feedback? Or do their stories indicate that sharing work in progress might be uncomfortable or threatening?

Thinking back to Jane, a manager looking to hire candidates comfortable in an open environment, and Bill, the short-term Red Hat associate who didn't understand how to work within our culture, I've come to realize that the most important element of any open organization interview is honesty and transparency—on both sides of the hiring process.

If you're a hiring manager, you should offer candidates concrete and specific stories that illustrate what your working environment is really like (and offer as many as you can). If you're a candidate, you should think about what you really prefer, and in what kind of circumstances you feel most comfortable. And both of you should be approaching the entire process with the notion of "cultural fit" firmly in mind—because for some people, the idea of working in an open organization might be more appealing than the reality of doing so.

About the author

Sam Knuth - I have the privilege to lead the Customer Content Services team at Red Hat, which produces all of the documentation we provide for our customers. Our goal is to provide customers with the insights they need to be successful with Open Source technology in the enterprise. Connect with me on Twitter: @samfw