Don’t focus on “culture fit” or “culture add.” Here’s the right way to hire for culture.
June 10, 2022
It’s an accepted fact at this point that your company should hire a diverse team if you want it to thrive. Forward-thinking leaders have accordingly, in recent years, made the shift from hiring for “culture fit” to hiring for “culture add.”
At Gem, we think this frame, though a step in the right direction, is too reductive. After all, “good culture fit” includes things like values-alignment—something that’s essential to us here at Gem. Further, the two are neither mutually exclusive nor the only options. There are plenty of ways a company—and its talent acquisition team—might pursue “hiring for culture.” Values add, cultural impact, and cultural contribution are among them.
Any of these terms can be the basis of a conscientious and more equitable hiring process. It’s up to hiring teams to be thoughtful about how they define things like alignment, adaptation, culture, and fit. You cannot hire well without discussing these topics. Every company has a culture employees inevitably work within that affects their performance and satisfaction. And while cultures evolve over time, much like people, it's important to cultivate a culture that values diverse perspectives and to hire talent whose values align with your culture. Talent who won't positively contribute to your culture (e.g., an employee who has great technical expertise but isn't a strong collaborator) won't do as well—even if they perform their roles flawlessly.
Just as “culture fit” isn’t an inherently bad qualification, hiring for “culture add” doesn’t guarantee success. Both criteria depend on the context in which you place them. Here’s how you can build the right context to hire for cultural impact while increasing (or maintaining) team diversity.
Define and document your current company culture
Start with a little fearless self-reflection and solicit employees’ participation in understanding and defining your organization’s culture and values. Consider:
Your core values: What drives the work you do? How should employees’ actions reflect that? How is diversity, equity, and inclusion defined and operationalized?
Your long-term mission: What are your company’s goals and purpose? How do they affect your expectations of employees?
Your operational structure: Is your company strictly hierarchical, or do you consider everyone an authority in their area of expertise? What employee traits work well within this structure?
What you require from employees: What gets people promoted? What prevents people from being promoted?
Company norms: Do people work 9-5, or is weekend work common? Do team members spend time together outside of work hours?
Workplace preferences: Do you allow WFH, or is everyone in the office? Do you prioritize fast deliveries and big-picture thinkers, or polished deliverables perfected by the detail-oriented?
Then, compare your mission and values to your employees’ day-to-day experiences. You may find surprising gaps (“We need someone detail-oriented on this otherwise high-velocity team”) or things you’d like to change (“Everyone on our team solves problems by resorting to X; we need to learn how to solve problems by doing Y”).
By the end of this meeting, you should have a clear picture of how your ideal employee should operate within your workplace and what your company will do to support them. This is the culture you should focus on in your hiring process.
Determine how to assess the qualities you want
Discussions around culture can lead to unconscious bias if you don’t monitor the ways you define and discuss hiring goals. Increase inclusion in the interview process by defining skills, behaviors and contributions that align with your company values. As you plan your interview questions, be clear about what a great answer looks like and what a bad one is missing. Put everything together on a candidate scorecard and keep this document at the center of every hiring decision. As you put this criteria together, be sure to request feedback from a diverse group of subject matter experts who can identify and mitigate any bias in the scorecard, including required skills and traits vs “nice-to-haves.”
You should also plan structured interviews where you ask the same questions in the same order of every candidate. Hiring discussions shouldn’t veer off into small talk, where you may discover a mutual love of frisbee golf or Netflix comedies that affect your impression of someone.
Write job descriptions that include cultural cues and highlight inclusive practices
It’s possible to be honest about what a candidate needs to thrive within your work environment while writing an inclusive job description that encourages applicants from underrepresented communities. Pull the essential skills and traits directly from your company culture document. Then describe activities (“leads meetings”) and outcomes (“meets targets”) rather than including assumptions about how an employee will perform their duties.
Avoid gender-coded words and limit role requirements to things that are truly “must-haves,” as both practices increase the number of marginalized applicants. Talk up your company’s inclusive benefits and include a thoughtful diversity statement. You can even go a step further and specify that you’re looking for job applicants who will impact the culture rather than conform to it.
Insert cues for the talent you’d like to see respond. You can always update your language to grab the attention of prospects who have the cultural adds you’re seeking.
Build a diverse hiring process by involving other employees
Everyone should know about your hiring philosophy and the way it ties into your organization’s culture. Reward employees who refer candidates who fulfill the criteria you create for new hires.
Your interview panel should represent the diversity you want to continue building upon. If it doesn’t, be clear about your cultural goals with the candidate. A candidate who doesn’t see themselves represented in the interview panel may draw the conclusion that the company does not value diversity and they may not be successful within your organization. You can make up for any lack of diversity in the interview panel by building in time for candidates to interact with the team. Team members will be able to help you evaluate employees on the correct aspects if they’ve done the above work.
Focus your interviews on the right culture-based questions
Your interview questions should help you identify whether a candidate’s working style and expectations are a good match for your company. Use the values interview model of questions that invites job candidates to demonstrate behaviors, values, and perspectives. (At Gem, our core values are diversity, velocity, transparency, and customer focus; so our values interview includes questions like: “Tell me about a time you had to decide between getting something done quickly or getting it done with a high degree of polish.”) You might ask:
How a candidate’s colleagues benefit from working with them
What traits they most value in teammates and managers
How they responded in a situation where a colleague came to them with a problem
For a description of a time they needed to switch perspectives to get something done
Each of these questions should lead to a specific answer that you can rate on your candidate scorecard. Guide discussion away from hypotheticals to make sure you’re getting a fair and accurate read of each person.
At least one interviewer should ask questions to assess whether the candidate embodies the company’s values. Others should discern whether the candidate would bring the experiences, behaviors, or perspectives that would enhance your culture or fill any culture gaps.
Standardize your after-interview evaluations
Giving every candidate the exact same interview makes it easy to compare them—just pull out those candidate scorecards and refer to the standards you set for competencies and quality answers. Make sure your discussion steers clear of phrases like “gut instinct,” which are often indicative of unconscious bias. If a member of the hiring team has a bad feeling about a candidate, help them articulate the root cause.
Ask interviewers to withhold references to a candidate’s personality. Of course, you don’t want someone toxic on your team; but personality is rarely an indicator of whether a candidate can make impactful contributions within the role and your organization. It’s certainly not an indicator of whether they can do the job well.
Other objections to steer clear of include the idea that a candidate may be overqualified or too experienced—this can lead to age discrimination. A hiring manager who expresses concern about a candidate’s long commute may inadvertently be perpetuating economic and racial inequality. These are tough conversations to have, but they’re crucial.
Continue to assess your workplace culture and hiring success rate
Your approach to every new opening should be informed by the lessons and data from your previous hiring experiences. Again, invite all employees to weigh in. Look at new hires who stayed with the company versus those who left and discuss what may have caused the attrition. Talk about why slam-dunk candidates turned down offers. Partner with HR to survey employees on whether the culture you want matches their experience of the culture as it exists. Within the first 90 days, survey new hires about their experiences and the extent to which they align with their expectations upon hire/expectations set during the hiring process.
Tools like Gem’s Diversity Recruiting Insights can give you a high-level view of sticking points anywhere in your funnel. Sometimes, candidate drop-off happens before you can make an offer. Or maybe your pipeline doesn’t include enough underrepresented candidates. Look at the stages where candidates from different communities drop out of your recruiting process and ask: How can we create a more inclusive process?
Get the best results by fostering an inclusive culture
Making changes to your hiring process will not fix your culture if the employees who fill culture gaps don’t stay at your company. We already know hitting diversity quotas doesn’t organically lead to change: your company must welcome employee differences, promote equity and provide everyone with a safe space to improve your culture. Investing in a dedicated role for Inclusion, Equity and Belonging is a great step (at Gem, we’ve just hired our first Director of DEI, Sheilesha Willis); but if that’s not in your headcount right now, find ways to ensure the entire team prioritizes inclusion in their work activities and interactions. Otherwise, even improving retention won’t lead to the cultural shift you’re seeking.
An organizational culture where people learn from each other’s differences, celebrate new ways of solving problems, and actively work to include everyone is worth fighting for. Once you find it, you’ll want to hire people who fit in—because a good “fit” is someone who brings something new to the table. So don’t give up on “hiring for culture” just because it can entrench systemic bias if done poorly. Design for inclusion, and be intentional about the way you incorporate company culture into hiring. Your process—and your company—will benefit.
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