How to Hire for Culture

Lauren Shufran

Lauren Shufran

Content Strategist

Posted on

January 16, 2020

"Culture add," "cultural impact," "culture fit." Here are some suggestions for how to hire for culture—no matter what word you follow it with.

In our last post, we asked whether the “culture-add-v.-culture-fit” question that’s being asked these days isn’t a bit reductive. For one, “culture fit”—the term that’s lately falling out of favor—includes values-alignment in its definition. Values-alignment is essential to us at Gem; so we’re discovering it’s a term we’re not entirely ready to drop just yet. For another thing, the word “versus” assumes that there are only two options to choose from when acknowledging culture in your hiring philosophy; and there are plenty of other options a company—and its talent acquisition team—might choose to support its philosophy of hiring for culture. “Values add,” “cultural impact,” and “cultural contribution” are among them.

The reality is that any of these terms can be applied thoughtfully and deliberately to a hiring process—as long as hiring teams pay attention to how they define things like “alignment,” “adaptation,” “culture,” and “fit,” and the ways unconscious bias creeps into their interactions with candidates. The language is important to pin down so that you have a shared understanding of your hiring philosophy and cultural vision; but all of this is ultimately about more than language. It’s about living practices. Here are some suggestions for how to hire for culture—no matter what word (fit, add, impact) you follow it with:

Define and document your current culture, your company’s values, and its long-term mission

Start with a little fearless self-reflection, gathering whomever in the company you can for this exercise. Documenting culture will allow you to observe where the gaps are (“We need someone detail-oriented on this otherwise high-velocity team.” “We need someone who learned these skills in a non-traditional environment to help us think outside the box.” “Everyone on our team solves problems by resorting to X; we need someone who problem-solves by doing Y.”) Defining your core values (compassion, curiosity, humility, agility, etc.) and your mission will ensure you search for people who reflect them.

Determine how to assess for the qualities you’re looking for

This may mean a fundamental redesign of your interview process. You won’t be able to extract values and behaviors from a LinkedIn profile or a resume, so interviewers will have to ask pointed questions to discover them. Ask candidates how their colleagues benefit from working with them or how they build rapport. Ask them to describe a time that a colleague came to them with a problem or a team member wasn’t pulling their weight. How did they respond? Ask them to describe mistakes they’ve made or times they needed to switch perspectives to get something done or to resolve an issue. If intellectual curiosity is one of your company values, ask what book they’re reading now.

Notice these are specific questions that invite candidates to demonstrate a range of behaviors, values, and perspectives. Don’t let candidates remain vague and hypothetical. At least one interviewer should ask questions to assess whether the candidate embodies the company’s values; others should ask questions to discern whether the candidate would bring the experiences, behaviors, or perspectives that would fill your culture gap.

Conduct structured interviews

Structured interviews mean asking the same questions in the same order to every candidate, and judging every candidate according to the same criteria. (Note: Structured interviews are not an alternative to unconscious bias training, which everyone in the hiring process should undergo.) Develop a standard system of “bad answers,” “okay answers,” and “great answers” so that interviewers have specific criteria to look out for. That way no one falls back on vague feelings that may be driven by unconscious bias. 

Have best practices for discussing candidates after the interview

Get rid of phrases like “gut instinct.” You now have clear, quantifiable qualities you’re looking for, along with examples of strong and weak answers to interview questions. That’s data, so there’s no reason to make hiring decisions based on instinct. If a member of the hiring team has a “bad feeling” about a candidate, help them articulate the root cause. Note that other phrases—”overqualified” or “too experienced”—can signal ageism. Ask interviewers to withhold references to candidate personality. Of course, you don’t want someone toxic on your team; but personality is rarely an indicator of whether a candidate can add value—and it’s certainly not an indicator of whether they can do the job well. If a hiring manager expresses concern about a candidate’s long commute, is that a seemingly innocent concern that perpetuates economic and racial inequality? And so on. These are tough conversations to have; but they’re crucial.

Write inclusive job descriptions and call out inclusive hiring practices in your outreach

Writing inclusive job descriptions means everything from avoiding gender-coded words (“rockstar,” “ninja”), to limiting role requirements to “must-haves,” to calling out inclusive benefits, to avoiding corporate jargon. You can even go a step further and specify that you’re not looking for candidates who’ll “fit in”; you’re looking for those who will impact the culture. Insert cues for the talent you’d like to see respond. Language can always be updated to grab the attention of prospects who have the “cultural adds” you’re seeking.

Put together diverse hiring teams

Your interview panel should represent the diversity you want to continue building on. It’s that simple. If you don’t have it yet, be clear about your cultural goals with the candidate. 

Get other employees involved in the "hire for culture" process

Of course, make sure all employees know about your hiring philosophy when it comes to company culture. There should be full transparency (in fact, all employees should be involved!) in defining and documenting your current culture and values, and how you plan on using those to inform the process. Then reward employees who refer candidates that fulfill the criteria you’re looking for. What’s more, don’t limit hiring efforts to the recruiter and hiring manager. Get the team involved so candidates can interact with their potential peers. If they’ve done the above work, the team will know what their culture gaps are, and who will be a strong addition. 

Hold regular culture assessments

This last step is key, as it’ll inform your approach to each new open role. All employees should be involved in these assessments. Consider asking about employees’ ideal culture as well as their experience of the culture as it currently exists. What are the unwritten rules and implicit assumptions about the current culture? Is there a (personality, behavioral, etc.) “type” of person that is overwhelmingly visible; and are there behaviors, perspectives, or personalities that the company is short on, or individual teams are missing?

Regardless of the word you put after “culture _____,” these practices will ensure thoughtful and deliberate hires that strengthen and diversify the team while staying true to the core values on which your organization was built. 


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