Why You Should Conduct a Values Interview... and What One Looks Like
When constructing a building, you need concrete, steel, or brick pillars to ensure the structure is stable and will last for years to come. The same concept applies to building an organization—except that your company values serve as the pillars. These values set the tone for your culture, drive business decisions, and influence how your employees treat each other.
But how do you preserve these values, especially as your organization grows and evolves over time? It’s all about bringing the right people into your organization and making your company values crystal-clear from the start. That’s where a values interview comes into the picture.
Values interviews aren’t something you can bring to life overnight. Because “values” is inherently an ambiguous term, it requires a lot of thoughtful discussions to identify exactly what that means to your organization, and to translate that understanding into a fully-baked series of thoughtful and probing questions. We’ll explore how to approach this process below.
What exactly is a values interview?
A values interview seeks to understand whether a candidate’s values align with the organization’s. This is frequently referred to as “values fit”. It entails asking questions that map to your company’s specific values and aim to understand the candidate’s goals, what drives their behavior, and what they prioritize in the workplace—among other things.
But to accomplish this, you need to get specific about your values. A company value of "we work hard" isn't going to allow you to separate the wheat from the chaff. But a company value of "we value velocity over perfection" will.
The difference is that the first value is generic and could have been copy-pasted from the internet—of course you want your employees to work hard, but is that really a distinguishing characteristic of your company? The second value, on the other hand, is clear, specific, and reflects what’s important to the people in your organization.
When it comes to values interview questions, we recommend asking a mix of behavioral and situational ones. The former asks candidates to recall a specific experience and describe how they behaved. The latter presents a hypothetical situation and asks candidates how they would respond. Here are a few examples of values interview questions:
- Let’s say someone you work with asked you to cut corners on a project, in a way that goes against your and the company’s values. How would you handle this situation?
- Describe a time that you received negative or constructive feedback on your work. How did you respond to it?
- Tell me about a time when you had to decide between getting something done quickly and getting it done flawlessly. Which did you choose, and why?
- What are the most important characteristics you look for in your teams and colleagues?
- How would you respond to a team member who wasn’t meeting their deadlines or completing their share of the work?
Note that these questions are general examples to give you a sense of what values-based interview questions are like. As we’ll discuss in the next section, it’s essential to make sure your questions are specific to your organization’s values.
At this point, you may also be wondering: how is a values interview different from interviewing for culture-fit? That’s a great question. Put simply: culture-fit focuses on how a candidate will assimilate into an existing culture. While part of this includes values—which is important—there are other aspects of this definition that include beliefs, behaviors, and backgrounds—aspects that don't add value to the interviewing process and can lead to a lack of diversity.
That’s why we encourage companies to focus on values-fit and culture-add instead. Aubrey Blanche, currently Director of Equitable Design, Product, & People at Culture Amp, put it best when she described values-fit as “hiring people who share our goals, not necessarily our viewpoints or backgrounds.” In other words, we’re focusing on the crucial parts of a candidate—their values—rather than random aspects of their personality that are vulnerable to interviewer bias.
Best practices for values interviews
Identify your company values
You can’t write values interview questions without knowing what your company values are. If your organization already has established company values, you still want to sit down with the hiring team and make sure everyone interprets them the same way.
For example, if “holding yourself to a high level of accountability” is one of your values, clearly define what that means. Ask yourselves: what does accountability look like in the workplace? Does accountability present itself differently on every team? This exercise leaves less room for subjectivity and ensures everyone is on the same page, rather than operating through different lenses.
If your organization doesn’t have established company values, host a brainstorming session with key stakeholders in the organization—from your leadership team to the employees who want to have a voice in the process. Use this as an opportunity to identify your company’s core values as a group. Remember: these are the principles that will serve as your cultural cornerstones, so be specific, clear, and intentional.
Write questions that reflect your company values
During a values interview, every question you ask should reflect or tie back to one or several of your company's core values. Otherwise, you lose sight of what exactly you’re looking for in the candidate, leaving more room for bias and defaulting to personal preferences over a clear goal.
To accomplish this, create questions that are specific to your organization—not something you pull off the internet. Again, values are an open-ended concept, and two companies with the same values don’t necessarily interpret them the same way. For instance, if one of your company values is to have a growth mindset, you may ask questions like:
- Tell us about a time when a project didn’t go as planned. How did you handle it, and what did you learn from the experience?
- What do you do to make sure you’re constantly growing in your role?
- How would you support a direct report or teammate who is struggling to learn a new skill?
Reduce bias in your interviewing process
As we mentioned before, “values” can be ambiguous. Without the proper guardrails, this ambiguity can make the interviewing process vulnerable to unconscious biases and, as a result, lead to the hiring of homogenous teams. Finding ways to reduce bias will naturally lead to more diversity since values interviews are focused on hiring talent who share the same mission, vision, and principles—not behaviors or backgrounds.
Having a clear set of company values is a great first step, but there are several others you can take to reduce the chances of subjectivity in your process. Here are a few ideas to help you reduce bias:
- Offer bias training for all interviewers.
- Create a standardized set of questions and methods of assessment (including for your values interview).
- Ask employees from outside the hiring team to weigh in on the questions to see whether they map well to your company values. You can iterate based on the feedback.
- Collect feedback from candidates to identify areas for improvement.
- Use solutions that track where in the funnel underrepresented talent is dropping out of process, so you can de-bias those hiring stages.
- Have open, honest conversations with the hiring team. Don’t be afraid to probe why others felt a candidate was or wasn’t a good fit and identify each other’s potential blind spots.
When it comes to conducting the values interview, you can take a few approaches. At Gem, we have one person conduct a separate, 30-minute values interview and ask all the questions in one sitting. You could also drop one or two values questions into your other interviews. The choice is up to you. The important part is making sure that all your interviewers are aware of what the values interview covers. Even if someone isn’t conducting the values interview, they can still keep their ears open for inconsistencies in how candidates express their values to other team members.
While there’s no way to 100% foolproof your interview process, following these best practices will help you get crystal-clear on your company values, develop more thoughtful questions, reduce bias, and hire the right people.