Beware the Culture Vulture

It's easy to get lost in vague buzzwords when hiring for "culture fit." Here is how to find a staffer who both enjoys and contributes to making your company grow

Written by Deborah Aarts

What makes your company a great place to work? Chances are your response will include a reference to culture—a firm’s core values, mission and general dynamic, all manifested through staff behaviour and interaction. According to Kevin Sheridan, an employee-engagement specialist and the author of Building a Magnetic Culture, it’s “the invisible architecture of an organization.” Studies show that when you hire for “culture fit,” morale goes up, productivity improves, the bottom line benefits. But how, exactly, do you do it? Too often, the process focuses on the wrong criteria or lacks sufficient rigour. Gut decisions are all too common.

There’s a better way. Follow these proven tactics for hiring people who will both fit in and thrive in your culture.

Define your search: Asked to define their culture, most CEOs parrot the old line on pornography: they know it when they see it. This gives your search team no clear guidelines. That’s why you should set out exactly what your culture is—no corporate jargon allowed, says Marty Parker, CEO of Mississauga, Ont., recruiting firm Waterstone Human Capital. To do it, study a few of your top performers whom other staff tend to emulate. “You’re not looking at what they do but rather how they do it,” Parker says. This may tell you that your culture embraces collaboration, or is process-based, or lone wolf-friendly. Voila! You know what behaviours to seek in recruits.

Giving candidates details about your culture allows them to self-select, which weeds out bad fits early

Avoid the clone zone: In a recent magazine interview, Silicon Valley executive Shanley Kane slammed startups’ tendency to dismiss non-conformists as poor culture fits: “[It] tends to mean, €˜We just don’t like you. You’re different from us.'” Experts agree that very few firms can thrive with a staff made up of clones. People with different interests and backgrounds can complement and learn from one another. “You have to be wary of hiring the same type of person,” says Tim Duce, CEO of Toronto-based KMI Publishing and Events. “It’s important to have a mix.”

Put out smart feelers: A culture-fit hiring strategy requires good planning. Professional recruiters can assist the hunt, but it takes time (and money) for them to understand your culture. Social media—especially LinkedIn—is a great, if time-consuming, reconnaissance tool, especially if you’ve identified other organizations whose cultures you admire. The best way to find great fits? Employee referrals. “Good people know good people,” says Duce.

Go slow: Hiring for culture fit is rarely something you can do from a resumé or one-off interview. At Port Coquitlam, B.C.-based employee-benefits distribution firm BBD (Benefits By Design Inc.), culture fit has been a formal hiring criterion for nearly three years—and the process takes a lot longer than it once did, according to COO Kim Macey. While that sometimes puts extra demands on existing workers, Macey says that the increase in good hires has made most of the 80-person team accept the longer recruiting process: “They don’t want a bad hire any more than we do.”

Let candidates self-select: Cameron Taylor knows his workplace isn’t for everyone. It’s a high-standards, high-rewards culture, and over the years, the CEO of BOATsmart!, a Peterborough, Ont.-based marine-safety certification firm, has made some bad hires. So Taylor decided to explain at the outset what potential newcomers should expect.

Job descriptions now include a detailed writeup about what it’s like to work at the firm (it’s a best-in-class-or-bust kind of place), including a description of the type of employees who thrive there. Candidates also receive the firm’s “brand book,” a marketing tool that outlines its history and future plans. Several prospective employees have withdrawn applications after getting this in-depth preparation.

Discouraging? Not at all, says Taylor: “To me, that indicates we’re on the right track. There’s a critical balance between €˜selling’ a job and being upfront about what it involves. Why hide anything?”

Mind the small stuff: A candidate’s comments—even offhand remarks—during recruitment can tell you a lot about how they might fit in. Take Vancouver-based retailer Spa Boutique Ltd., which boasts a culture firmly rooted in family values. “People we hire tend to speak highly of their family, or make reference to them in the interview,” says CEO Nancy Mudford.

At BBD, the culture encourages self-starters, so interviewers ask such questions as “How lucky do you consider yourself to be?” The answers reveal “whether [the candidates] have the philosophy that things happen to them, or they’re the type to drive things themselves,” says Macey.

Embrace groupthink: Recently, Edmonton-based systems integrator DevFacto Technologies Inc. had to choose between two equally qualified candidates for a project manager position. DevFacto is one of many firms that use group interviews to assess a prospect’s culture fit. “We literally grab whoever is available to spend a half-hour in an interview,” says CEO Chris Izquierdo. Afterwards, every participant gives a thumbs up or down on whether the interviewee is a fit. A single thumbs down can disqualify a candidate. “[Interviewers] have to justify it,” Izquierdo says. “But we take it seriously.” DevFacto’s new project manager ended up being the one who won over his future colleagues.

A few times, Izquierdo overrode a staff veto and hired someone anyway. No more: in every such case, the hire didn’t work out.

Sheridan recommends having group-interview participants meet beforehand to prepare a list of “non-negotiable” traits that would disqualify a candidate. This may seem petty or arbitrary, but someone who annoys your staff in an interview will do so on the job, too. And when the group interview is over, debrief as a group, at least by phone, says Parker, as different staffers may see different qualities in the person.

Beware the culture vulture: The candidate wows her future co-workers. She’s got heaps of enthusiasm. She has already signed up for the staff softball team. But that won’t do you any good if she can’t do the work. These “culture vultures” prove why you should never hire for culture fit alone.
It happened at BBD—amazing culture fits later dismissed because they couldn’t handle the job’s demands. “When someone’s a real go-getter and has a great attitude, they’ll give you all the answers you want to hear,” says Macey. “But we’re a business. You need certain technical skills to be here, and we have expectations about how you perform them.”

It’s easy to err when hiring for culture fit. But if you can institute a rigorous process, it’s worth it. “When you get it right,” says Duce, “you see the difference from Day One.”

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com