Interviewing for culture fit

I was reading about the use and myth of intuition when making business decisions, and was struck by this, which quotes an organisational psychologist:

Companies will spend large budgets on diversity and inclusion, “then tell you they hire for ‘culture fit’ – and the main way to evaluate culture fit is whether somebody ‘feels right’ in a job interview. Even if managers are well-meaning and open-minded, they will gravitate towards candidates who are like them and they are comfortable with.”

I believe culture fit is important when hiring people. An organisation’s culture can be significant in what makes it different from its competitors, and it’s very helpful when everyone implicitly agrees on certain ways of working. For example, if there’s a general preference for caution, or a general bias towards openness, or a general acceptance of discussing societal issues in the workplace. This makes it easier for everyone to work together.

But I also believe hiring by intuition is dangerous. Without objective criteria for assessing candidates which can be clearly scrutinised there is exactly the problem stated: we are too ready to hire people who are just like ourselves in unintended ways, such as skin colour, social background, personal interests, etc.

However, assessing culture fit and being objective are not in opposition. I’ve written before that culture is based on tangible things. So if we can identify those tangible things we can seek evidence for them from a job candidate. Now we just need to turn that into useful interview questions.

A good format for interview questions is “give me an example of when you did X.” This shows that someone can not only talk about the thing, but can actually do it in practice (and we can see how well they’ve done it before).

However, for culture fit questions I think we have to go further. That format is particularly well suited for asking about people’s skills—ie can they do this thing if they try? For example, their ability to tackle technical debt (if they needed to) or their ability to deal with an underperforming team member (if it was an issue).

By contrast, organisational culture is about default behaviour, and culture fit is about how people behave by defaut, as well as what they feel comfortable with. If our organisation is, say, a naturally cautious one, then asking for an example of when a candidate had to deal with a matter with particular care only shows they can act that way; it doesn’t show that is their natural bias or that they are comfortable with doing that routinely.

Instead I prefer “Give us an example of when you had to choose between X and Y”, or “Give us an example of how you balance X and Y”. For example, “Can you give us an example of when you had to deal with a situation where you had to choose between caution and rapid action?” This allows the candidate to show their own preferences, rather than us predefining the behaviour we want to see. Exploring their real life example further should reveal more about their approach to such an issue.

Of course, we shouldn’t keep our organisational culture a secret, and might even talk about company values on our website. A diligent candidate might have researched this beforehand and know the kind of thing we expect. (They should also be ready to work in such an environment if they are turning up for the interview.) So we can level the playing field a bit by prefixing the question with something about our culture or values. For example, “We operate in a regulated industry, and everything we do is subject to audit checks. Can you give us an example of when you had to choose between…” We’re not explicitly requiring an example of caution, but we are giving them context, and explaining why we’re asking the question. It also allows them to think about whether they really will fit here.

I hope what this shows is that we can hire for culture fit and still avoid our natural baises. This is good for everyone involved.

Photo by Ian