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.

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12 Comments

LauraHilliger

I'd be interested to see the "Right for Red Hat" framework. This page is helpful, but I'd like to see the hiring questions and explanations. http://jobs.redhat.com/life-at-red-hat/is-red-hat-right-for-you/

I have a few allies in Greenpeace HR who are starting to talk about modifying recruiting and hiring practices to help spur cultural change. I think such an example will help!

Great article, I'll be sharing it with my allies :)

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samfw

Thanks Laura - I'll see if I can send it to you. Otherwise happy to discuss any time. I do think hiring is a key opportunity as part of a change management initiative.

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Andrew Thornton

Fascinating article, thanks for sharing.

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samfw

There has been some great discussion happening around this post on twitter that I wanted to comment on here. A few people have pointed out this interview with Adam Grant that directly challenges the premise of my post: http://www.forbes.com/sites/danschawbel/2016/02/02/adam-grant-why-you-sh...

Grant writes, "stop hiring on cultural fit. That’s a great way to breed groupthink. Emphasizing cultural fit leads you to bring in a bunch of people who think in similar ways to your existing employees."

This is a great point, but I don't think it's counter to what I'm practicing. Part of my goal as a hiring manager is to bring in people who are excited about openly sharing their ideas, have a diversity of perspectives, and who aren't intimidated by a culture of open critique. It's not about hiring people who all think the same, but about hiring people who are comfortable in a unique environment. I can see the slippery slope argument, though, and it's a great perspective to keep in mind.

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James Schweitzer

I don't think you are listening to the people who think cultural fit is discrimination. Are you not hiring people like Bill now? Are you filtering out older people, military, people that work in traditional companies? What about political views or religion.

You act like you are doing Bill a favor by never hiring him in the first place. What really happened is your 'open' culture didn't embrace him. Find a way to use the skills he was hired for. It was lazy HR and management.

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samfw

Hi James - thank you for the feedback. I do hear the concern, and I think it is a valid concern, but I don't know if it's necessarily true in every case. It might be semantics - what I'm describing as cultural fit has nothing to do with age, background, political views, etc. If your company's culture is about embracing a diversity of opinions, openly discussing decisions, encouraging feedback from anyone at any time - that dynamic is going to appeal to some people and not to others.

In terms of Bill, I don't think either of us can say what really happened (I was not directly involved). No doubt the situation could have been handled better, and I did learn from it. I have seen many people since then from the same company, in his same demographic, that have succeeded wildly at Red Hat.

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I Towey

As a Red Hatter, I think our company is hiring diversely, especially older workers, myself included. The focus seems to be on hiring free-thinkers. Do you think Red Hat needed to change "Bill's" personality type, so that he would be comfortable here? There is a level of chaos in an open organization that could make some people intensely uncomfortable, and I don't think we can change that.

In my case I spent many years homeschooling, and I think those years out of the work force hurt me in my more "traditional" interviews or resulted in my never getting interviewed in the first place. I had the most luck finding work as a consultant working with other free thinkers. Red Hat has given me a chance to prove myself, and I love it here and have thrived. I wish all companies would adopt Red Hat's hiring policies--then people like me could actually find a job!

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mrichter

James,

I want to answer you directly, because I fit a few demographics that you might think that a company using "culture" as code for "young and willing to burn themselves out workers" would think.

I'm 49 and don't look young for my age. I also came from Big Pharma, about the least flexible industries on the planet. Red Hat hired me last year as a Technical Account Manager. One of the things that I found amazing in my new hire class (which was large) was not the gender and racial mix (which was impressive) but the obvious fact that I wasn't the oldest new hire in the room. ;-)

Since coming to the Hat, I've never regretted leaving what some might have considered a very safe place. (at least until being laid off, but then you would get Big Severance Package)

All that being said...if you are not the type of person who can work without constant supervision, you would have a problem. If you're not willing to reach out to peers to find answers to customer issues (in a collaborative way, not using threats or manager escalations) then Red Hat is not your home.

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Sandra McCann

Great article and definitely agree it goes both ways. An employer wants to know a new hire will thrive, and the potential new hire wants to understand the environment and know she can succeed and thrive. And perhaps that is one of the key indicators - not just to succeed but to thrive in the group.

One other point I've seen - There can be a marked difference between the macro-culture (that espoused by leaders and encouraged throughout the company) and micro-culture (that which exists within an individual's group or set of day to day peers). To thrive, I think both need to align. As was mentioned, not going for the monoculture or groupthink approach, but as a stark contrast - The company drives for passion and engagement and the tiny group in the corner has mentally 'checked out' and squashes anything that tries to break out of that lethargy.

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samfw

Hi Sandra - thank you. You make a great point about the micro-climate vs. the macro-climate. To some extend that's inevitable. One thing I've noticed at RH is that macro climate is so powerful it will override the micro climate in situations where they don't align.

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jhibbets

I disagree with the Adam Grant article in Forbes. [1] I think that organizations should hire for culture fit. Stepping back though, I think it's just semantics. The article is talking about cultural contribution, which is part of how I define culture, but not how I default my thinking about it.

I think his interpretation of culture fit is restricted to manager-associate relationship. When I think of culture fit, I think about the culture as the environment. For Red Hat, that means is a person a good fit for our fast-paced, constantly changing, transparent, and open environment. I absolutely do not want to hire people who would always agree with me because having diversity on a team is extremely important.

Cultural contribution vs cultural fit--I think we're talking about the same thing. Ultimately, it comes down to organizations hiring the right people for their environment and employees finding the right organizations that match their beliefs and working style.

[1] - http://www.forbes.com/sites/danschawbel/2016/02/02/adam-grant-why-you-sh...

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samfw

Thank you, Jason - great perspective. I agree we might be using the same words to mean different things. Maybe climate is a better word than culture?

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