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Guest Blog – How To Hire For Cultural Fit At Scale

Adrian Dixon

April 10, 2019

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Have you been curious about the best ways to hire for strong cultural fit in a high-volume setting?

It used to be that companies would hire based solely on skills and qualifications. “Culture” – if that word was ever used – was mostly a way to exclude candidates from the pool.

Of course, as you would know, this has changed drastically in recent years. More and more companies are using culture as a primary selection-criteria, even more so than skills or qualifications. One study even found that only 11% of failed hires are due to poor technical skills; the rest are due to poor cultural fit.

Some organizations have gone even further and switched to hiring for cultural add. The subtle difference is that where cultural fit seeks to guard an existing culture, cultural add focuses on evolving and enriching a culture through the addition of fresh perspectives.

Cultural fit (or cultural add) can be difficult to figure out, especially when you’re hiring at scale. Misinterpreting your cultural values can lead to a stagnant, monolithic culture. Or it can lead to hiring candidates who simply don’t fit in.

But there is a solution: quantifying your culture. By objectively understanding your cultural values, you will be in a much better position to hire the right people, no matter whether you’re hiring two people or two hundred.

I’ll walk you through a detailed process to quantify your culture and how you can use it in your hiring below.

Why Cultural Fit Matters

Have you ever worked with someone who just didn’t fit in and stuck out like a sore thumb? On the obverse, have you ever worked in a team where your values just didn’t align with everyone else?

The notion that hiring candidates whose values, visions, habits, and acceptable behaviors align with those already extant in an organization has merit. A good cultural fit creates social cohesion and a sense of belonging amongst individuals, which helps to build a strong organization.

Amir Goldberg, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford GSB, found that employees who were a cultural mismatch for the company were the first ones to be fired. 89% of employees that leave are due to cultural fit, and candidates who fit in are 27% less likely to leave.

Little wonder that 90% of respondents in a survey of Australian firms rated cultural fit as “very important” or “essential”.

Having a clear set of values and a deliberate culture that you can point to helps employees make decisions consistent with the company’s aims. This is particularly important for large companies with a global spread of offices as it allows for autonomy within a structured framework.

Furthermore, cultural fit hiring can be cost-effective. If a company that claims to promote open software actively discourages employees from contributing to open source projects, it could see resentment or even resignations. The company would then not only have to double their recruitment costs to search for new candidates, but would also earn a negative reputation among potential employees.

Quantifying Your Company’s Culture

To hire for cultural fit, or perhaps more importantly to avoid cultural clash, you must first quantify your company’s culture.

Pinpointing this can be tricky as a company’s culture is typically a mash-up of a prescribed set of values, allowable emotions, and acceptable behaviours which aren’t always categorically stated.

Evaluate your formal culture

Start by looking at your company’s written values and consider how they inform company culture. For example, a company who values supporting their local community may actively support fundraising projects and give staff time off to volunteer.

Your ‘About Us’ page is a good place to start. If you have a detailed “culture deck”, a la HubSpot, then even better. This is your formal culture, what you are supposed to adhere to.

Of course, your lived culture can be very different from this formal culture. Which is why it’s important to ask the right questions.

Quantify your real cultural values

Next, evaluate the actual culture of your business by rating your company on a sliding scale from 1 to 10 across categories such as:

  • Formality in dress and behaviour: Do people show up in hoodies or is every day casual Friday? Does every email start with a formal salutation or is a casual “hey” in small caps the norm? A ‘1’ on this scale would be completely casual, while a ‘10’ would be completely formal.
  • Decision-making: Are decisions primarily based on instinct, or are they backed by exhaustive data?
  • Working style: Do you focus on teamwork or do you reward individual achievement?
  • Social inclinations: How do your people socialize and unwind? Would they rather go for a hike than party? Would they rather play Counterstrike than a game of soccer?
  • Training and development: Are job roles mostly static or do people have significant job mobility? Does the organization prioritize self-learning or are there more formal training programs in place?
  • Humor: Your kind of humor can reveal a lot about your organization. Do you practice abject sincerity or does every meeting start with a few jokes? If it’s the latter, what kind of jokes do you like to share – puns, memes, or dark humor?
  • Generosity: How generous would you say your company is? Do you offer free lunches or would it be hard for employees to get even a 5% in-house discount after years of service?
  • Rigidity: How important is it for your people to follow the rules? Do you tolerate mavericks or do you practice total conformity?
  • Time: How does your company deal with time? Are deadlines fixed and absolute or is there some wiggle room? Do you have an “always on” culture or do you practice radio silence after 6pm?

Question your colleagues, senior leaders, and even customers to find the right answers. Assign a score to each of these factors to arrive at a quantified version of your culture.

Find your company’s emotional core

Going further, identify what emotions are encouraged in the workplace. Some companies actively track the emotional culture of their business and intervene to generate emotions they value.

For example, Cisco Finance actively encourages fun initiatives as a way to foster joy because that emotion increases employee satisfaction, commitment, and productivity.

Look to the leaders

Look at what the leaders in your organization are doing and being encouraged to do. Culture usually flows from the top; whatever your seniors do shapes the attitudes and behaviors of your junior teams.

Finally, examine your all-stars – the people whose faces grace your ‘employee-of-the-month’ board. Junior people look up to these top performers. Their beliefs can permeate into your culture.

For instance, Shopify found four common traits amongst the top performing 10 percent of their employees which made them successful. They now use these predictors of success to check for cultural fit during hiring.

Survey leaders and reinforce values

After completing your personal assessment of your company’s culture, augment your findings with a survey of the management team (and if possible, the whole company). This will help you to sort the dominant cultures from the subcultures.

Once you’ve drawn a good overall picture of your company’s culture and established that it matches what leadership wants, be sure to maintain and monitor it with regular surveys.

Find ways to encourage the behavior you want to see and be consistent with hiring people who are a good cultural fit, looking beyond their current qualifications to see their potential.

Hiring for Cultural Fit at Scale

Hiring for cultural fit for one role is tricky enough; to do it for hundreds of open positions can seem next to impossible.

The solution is to use technology in such a way that you can focus on evaluating the more “human” side of hiring – culture, personality, and values.

Further, by quantifying your culture, you can also focus on weeding out candidates who don’t value the cultural traits you prioritize.

For instance, if you’ve determined that your culture is extremely formal (say, a 9 on the formal-casual scale), and the candidate uses extremely casual language in her communication, you can say that she might not be a good fit.

This can help you improve hiring at scale, especially if you leverage technology to facilitate decision-making.

Set the ground rules

To make hiring for cultural fit work at scale, explain your culture before you hire by publishing a description of it on your website. Doing this will repel candidates who don’t like how you work.

Coach hiring managers on company values and culture. Create a hiring process with built-in questions about values, behavior, and personality, and ensure hiring managers follow it.

Use AI to handle repetitive tasks

Encourage recruiters to speed up the process of finding candidates by using AI powered recommendation engines. AI can save recruiters hours by automating repetitive tasks like screening resumes and scheduling interviews with candidates.

You can also use AI to search CVs and social profiles for keywords that align with a company’s culture. If someone repeatedly talks about the value of communication in their resume, and this is a trait you value, you can algorithmically prioritize them in your candidate shortlist.

Offload pre-screening duties to chatbots

It’s difficult to focus on intangibles such as ‘culture’ when most of your time is spent on pre-screening candidates.

A workaround is to use customizable chatbots. These chatbots can be used to engage in a two-way initial chat with candidates and ask pre-screening questions. This way, you can weed out candidates who don’t fit your location or salary criteria without even picking up the phone.

Beyond this, you can also use chatbots to perform repetitive tasks like matching candidates to relevant open positions and answering questions around benefits.  

Over to You

Cultural fit has been proven to be a key ingredient in the success of any business, regardless of its size. Leaders that don’t focus on cultural fit often find that their company’s character doesn’t reflect its founding vision.

By quantifying your culture, you not only develop a deeper understanding of it, but can also use it to improve hiring at scale. Instead of relying on ‘gut instinct’, you can objectively analyze candidates to see how they fit into your current cultural matrix.

Of course, cultural fit works best as one strand of a holistic hiring approach that factors in other key elements such as skills, qualifications, diversity, potential, personality, and of course, likelihood of bringing delicious homemade brownies into work to share. Use it as only one metric for your hiring decisions, not the only metric.

Jeff Sullivan is a marketing manager at Workamajig where he works closely with digital agencies to scale their growth. When not helping agency leaders manage their projects and hire better talent, he can be found fiddling with his guitar or trying to make sens of music production.