A brief guide to hiring with culture in mind

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Open. Transparent. Collaborative. Fast-paced. Constant change.

Those are words that I’d use to describe the work culture I've lived in for the last 13 years as a Red Hat associate.

I love every bit of it, but the culture at Red Hat isn't for everyone. Years ago, I'd see people join the organization and leave after a short period of time. I convinced myself that our environment is very much a place where people "sink or swim." If you can deal with an ever-changing environment, then at least you have a shot at being successful.

Several years ago, however, Red Hat made some changes to the company's recruiting strategy. We started sharing much more information with candidates up front, in order to help them understand the unique culture and the expectations that people at Red Hat have. This, in turn, helped candidates self-assess whether joining our organization was the right move for them. By coupling this with behavioral interview techniques and an internal referral program, we found more people who could "swim."

Our culture is unique because of our roots in open source and our beliefs that stem from the free software movement. A passion for open source and software freedom saturates all levels of the organization, and this emotion exemplifies why the open source way is such a staple in our culture. And when you have a culture that's based on open exchange, participation, and meritocracy, hiring people who share this philosophy becomes even more important.

The case for (and against) culture fit

In an interview with Adam Grant on Forbes, Dan Schawbel makes a good argument for not hiring for culture fit. He associates culture fit with groupthink, and argues that organizations should avoid this style of hiring.

"It's wiser to follow the example from the design firm IDEO, and hire on cultural contribution," he writes. "Instead of looking for people who fit the culture, ask what’s missing from your culture, and select people who can bring that to the table."

It's a valid point. But my experience at Red Hat inclines me to think that when you have a culture that's truly unique, there's good reason to be upfront with people about what it's like to work in your organization and to look for candidates who are going to thrive in that culture.

At the same time, you have to recognize that your perspective on who can thrive in that culture is going to be limited by your own experiences and biases. It is good to challenge your own thinking, and recognize that a healthy culture has room for diverse groups of people to find different ways of being successful. To help candidates understand our culture and what it's like to work at Red Hat, we use four themes to guide conversations during the hiring process: purpose, passion, community, and opportunity.

If you've read The Open Organization, you know how much Red Hat values purpose and passion. We talk to candidates about what it's like to be part of a mission-driven organization. We explain that Red Hatters are incredibly passionate people, and they often have strong opinions. That means you need to take feedback gracefully. And sometimes you have to stand up and make your own voice heard. We encourage our interview panelists to share their own stories about these things (and everyone has a story to tell!).

We also talk about community, and we explain that, at Red Hat, anyone can—and is encouraged to—contribute. That means that your ability to influence isn't necessarily tied to your job title. For example, I am not a people manager, but I have successfully led teams at Red Hat through influencer powers and reputation. When I interview a job candidate, especially someone stepping into a senior position, I emphasize that you can't make assumptions about who to listen to, just by looking at their job title.

We talk a lot about opportunity, too. For us, that is about being able to have an impact in our fast-paced environment. I often will tell my fellow associates that if opportunity is knocking, answer the door, say "yes," and figure out the details later on. We have such an impact with the work we do at Red Hat that each of us is able to contribute to the greater mission. But you probably won't have someone who lays out your next step or career growth options for you. It's up to you to recognize, take, and make your own opportunities. If you wait for someone else to show you the way, your role and career can become stagnant.

These conversations give candidates a clear understanding of whether Red Hat is right for them and helps prepare them for their early days in their new role. In some ways, it's a vaccination against culture shock.

How to hire for an open organization

Another thing we hire for is, essentially, emotional intelligence. Annie McKee describes how to do this in a recent piece for Harvard Business Review.

"One of the reasons we see far too little emotional intelligence in the workplace is that we don’t hire for it, McKee says. "We hire for pedigree. We look for where someone went to school, high grades and test scores, technical skills, and certifications, not whether they build great teams or get along with others. And how smart we think someone is matters a lot, so we hire for intellect."

In recent years we've been getting much better at incorporating Red Hat's values and some important leadership capabilities into the hiring process. Our People team has worked especially hard to find the best ways of assessing incoming candidates for leadership capabilities that fit our unique culture.

We seek out stories from candidates about how they've led past projects or teams. We dig deep to understand what kinds of behaviors they apply on the job. We're looking for specific ones that are important in an open organization like ours: trust, collaboration, and transparency (to name a few). Again, we share this up front as we begin the hiring process, and we include plenty of examples on our jobs site to highlight what it means to work here.

One example comes from Sam Knuth, who has written about our open interview process. Sam highlights the importance of designing the interview process to hire for what he describes as "culture fit." That doesn't mean hiring people who are "just like us," but rather people who are comfortable working in (and contributing to) an open environment. And he also acknowledges that, sometimes, you need to go beyond the interview to truly understand if a candidate embraces the organization's values and beliefs.

Another example is our employee referral program: Red Hat Ambassadors. Because our culture is so unique, we've found that a great way to find more Red Hatters is to have our associates send people our way who would be a good fit. The program has been wildly successful and is one way we help our organization maintain the best parts of our culture while we scale for the future.

Opening the acceptance letter

We now understand just how important it is to find folks who are already open to, well, openness, before we hire them. We spend more time upfront during the recruiting process to help candidates self-assess whether they would thrive in our environment. As part of this, we ask specific interview questions to uncover some of candidate's familiarity and comfort with collaborative, merit-based systems, and practicing transparent work behaviors.

It's important to be honest with candidates about the realities of your organization's culture, because the hiring process is expensive and taxing on teams and candidates. Finding the right candidate for any position takes time. At Red Hat, we've learned  that finding the right people who would thrive in our environment might take a little longer, but like any open process, the end result is always better.

Do you agree? What are your thoughts on hiring with culture in mind?

Jason Hibbets is a Community Director at Red Hat with the Digital Communities team. He works with the Enable Architect, Enable Sysadmin, Enterprisers Project, and Opensource.com community publications.



I hope more companies will add culture as an important part of their hiring process. I think it is equally important to hard and soft skills, to also see if someone actually fits into the companies culture, with all of its values. I know for myself I work better, and achieve more, if I do something with passion and purpose. So turning it around, I actually look at a companies culture, when reviewing job opportunities.

Great article Jason! You've given me great food for thought. I think emotional intelligence is very important and I like that influence is not or should not be tied to job title.

Great article, and something I have been thinking about a lot myself. Technical skills are important, but so are passion, and a commitment to open principles. It is great to see you and others at Red Hat putting so much into articulating how you are doing things, and sharing these practices with the wider community. I joke occasionally about titles, PhDs, MBAs, etc, but having come from an open source background before entering the workplace I have always loved how little titles and education have to do with influence.

Great, thoughtful piece.

This article is very interesting, and has a lot of good idea. However, I did instantly go and look at the staff page to see whose these people are, and noted that it is overwhelmingly white, and mostly male. Like many tech-y places. I think there's definitely merit in including culture in categories for the right person, and also in being transparent about workplace culture to interviewees. But I also would say that finding people 'like us' might be thought of in the foreground as 'energetic and passionate like us' but also can be 'he reminds me of myself' and involve a lot of subconscious bias. You do acknowledge that can be a problem in the piece, but don't really say what you do to tackle that.

That sounds like an entirely different article to tackle on the topic of diversity and inclusiveness and certain tactics to endorse during the hiring process. I've read a little bit about this and would have to do some additional research in order to do the topic justice.

In reply to by Ruth (not verified)

I'm Ecuadorian.
Coming from a different country and hiring culture altogether, we go for trustworthiness and hard work. We don't hire overly specialized people, because we prefer rational decision makers that can wear different hats over corporate drones. We also don't believe in behavioral interviews, since we know people can fake them.
We have honest, transparent, and sometimes politically incorrect conversations, to uncover core values and integrity. This is how we weed out corruption and laziness from self disciplined work environments.

In the end, what makes a company grow sustainably is not just hiring good professionals (their knowledge will grow obsolete in 10 years), but hiring contrarian, humble folks tirelessly committed to learning and getting things done, even when no one's watching.

In this light, I believe you can find A players both hiring for culture fit and hiring for culture growth. It's indistinguishable, as long as you set the bar high for honest self driven career ambition. In the end, most skills can be learned if you're constantly challenging yourself, even more so with internal LMS training.

What I have seen though, given you mentioned Adam Grant, is that openness should correlate with giver reciprocity profiles. Even when this is encouraged, this is not necessarily the case.
I have seen hard working folks leaving open organizations and startups due to having to deal with fake givers (takers acting as givers to their managers and decision makers).
Cultural frameworks do little to detect these false positives.
There's also an ivory tower component that seems to happen after a company executives grow comfortable after a good company gets large enough.
I like Netflix approach to culture as a framework (http://www.slideshare.net/reed2001/culture-1798664).

Red Hat has self discipline sewn at its core. This makes for a nice environment, where you work with smart people. But, leveraging on these open principles, it should avoid drinking its own kool aid, and keep working to absorb and learn from other work environments and corporate culture experiments.

David, thanks for the comment. Great insights here. I'm just starting to learn more about Netflix's culture, which is fascinating.


In reply to by David Chang

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