SmartRecruiters Hiring Success Journal
Culture Fit

The Essential “Culture Fit” Interview Questions

After four years of startup life, I’ve come to hate the question, “is this candidate a culture fit?”. I hate it almost as much as I am repulsed by the over-used word “hacking.” I hear it every day and it makes me cringe!

Now don’t get me wrong: culture is important. A company’s culture is its personality. It is the environment in which the team operates, which is affected by its mission, goals, and leadership.

In fact, it’s what sets startups apart from the rest of the business world. It’s certainly not the size or age of the company that determines whether it is a startup or not, as there are tiny bureaucratic companies and giant public companies with startup cultures.

So how do companies make sure their culture succeeds when they add a new hire to the team?

It seems like “Is she a culture fit” really means “do we like them?” While there’s nothing wrong with asking this question, I have had success asking two different questions in its place:

  1. Is this person a jerk?
  2. How will this person affect our current culture?

Instead of asking if a prospective hire will fit neatly into your existing culture, you should ask whether they are likely to move your culture in the right direction: to improve employee retention and your Glassdoor score (which will help you attract top talent).

At a previous company I worked at, a colleague asked me how we can energize our Sales Development Representative (SDR) program and increase our email and phone volume. Our numbers were dipping, and a choice had to be made. That’s when I realized that the energy on the sales floor shifted after a vocal, aggressive, high-energy SDR was promoted off the team. I was perplexed: how could I steer the energy of my team appropriately when personnel changes occurred?

A week later, I was having an interview with the energetic SDR’s potential replacement, and a lightbulb went off in my head. While asking our standard set of questions to confirm that the candidate was a “culture fit”, it occurred to me that a culture fit was the last thing the team needed! We didn’t need someone who would match the current culture. Instead, we needed someone who was high-energy, and likely to shift the existing culture a few notches up on the energy spectrum. In this context, “high-energy” means more activities, higher call volume, and more overall excitement about sales competition.

This was a critical hire for me—one that had the potential to create positive momentum for the sales team. I needed someone who would help the team consistently outperform its goals. To succeed, I required two things:

  1. A way to make sure everyone involved in the hiring process was in sync. A rating system that allowed us to break “culture” down into its sub-components and carefully define them.
    1. Energy – did the candidate seem excited about working with the team? Did they speak about their prior sales experience with enthusiasm?
    2. Aggressiveness – is the candidate willing to take “no” for an answer? Do they push back when they believe someone is wrong?
    3. Follow up – did the candidate follow up? Was the follow-up personalized or generic? Did they put time into the follow-up email, call, etc?
  2. A hiring platform that everyone is actually willing and able to use. One which everyone—not just the recruiters—actively input ratings, notes, and other important information. Without consistent feedback from a variety of stakeholders, it is hard to gauge whether a person is actually a culture fit. This is important because hiring processes tend to become inefficient (or completely fall apart) when recruiters waste time chasing down hiring managers and other employees to review and collaborate on prospects.

Eventually, we chose an experienced, competitive candidate to join the team, and his impact was immediate. In his first month, he outperformed half of the team, even with relaxed introduction goals. In the second month, he led the team! And by the third month, the competitive spirit that served us so well in previous quarters was back in full force.

Now every hiring process begins with a new step—consider which cultural profile is likely to nudge the team in the right direction.

As a sales leader, here are a few of the questions I ask before deciding the direction in which I want to shift the culture with the next hire(s):

  1. What are we doing well? Are there any important measurable goals (like revenue per month, calls per day, etc.) that we are doing well with?
  2. What are we not doing well? What goals are we struggling to achieve?
  3. Which aspects of our culture directly affect our attainment of—or failure to attain—the most important goals?
  4. What personality traits are likely to influence the existing culture in a meaningful and positive way?

Next time someone asks, “are they a culture fit”, carefully consider whether that’s what you actually want, or if shifting the culture is more within your business needs.

Taft Love

Taft Love

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