How to Determine if a Candidate is a Cultural Fit

Disregarding the importance of cultural fit is one of the biggest mistakes a hiring manager can make. It’s tempting to choose the candidate with the most impressive credentials, but that isn’t always the choice that will add the greatest value. “Cultural misfits will underperform, regardless of their talent” says Lou Adler, CEO of The Adler Group. “If you’ve ever hired a talented, smart, affable and articulate person who has underperformed, you’ve experienced the cultural misfit problem firsthand.”

Determining Cultural FitCultural fit can be broken down into a few core components: the candidate’s motivation to do the work associated with the job, the candidate’s fit with the team and manager, the candidate’s fit with the company structure, and the candidate’s ability to match the work pace. A big culture point that is a positive for almost all company cultures is adaptability. “Those [candidates] that are the most adaptable are likely to be your best hires,” says Adler, “since they’ll be able to grow and take on bigger roles as your company changes over time.”

Other cultural attributes in candidates tend to be more or less positive depending on what your specific corporate culture is. Here’s how to suss out which candidates are a hit and which are a miss when it comes to fitting into, and adding to, your corporate culture.

How to Determine Cultural Fit

1. Know what you’re looking for and express it clearly.

Once again, vague or recycled job descriptions are your enemy in hiring. Your job descriptions should not only describe the work that candidates will do if hired, but also the environment in which they will work. “When you put out the call for applicants, be as specific as possible about what a prospective employee can expect should they be hired” says Jeff Pruitt, chairman and CEO of Tallwave. “If you're a dog-friendly office with flexible telecommuting opportunities, say that. If working weekends is common, say that too. Never hide the truth from anyone - if you like your culture how it is, don't run the risk of bringing in someone who will stir the pot because their expectations differed from reality.”

It’s best to choose interviewers who understand the company culture well and are confident answering questions about it. That way, they can give candidates a clear and accurate picture of the corporate culture, as well as weed out candidates who clearly clash. “When judging a candidate's cultural fit, any interviewer worth their salt is already intimately familiar with the inner workings of the company, and that includes its culture” says Barry S. Saltzman, CEO of Saltzman Enterprise Group.

2. Ask about past managers.

Part of cultural fit is managerial fit. While you won’t know exactly what the work dynamic between a candidate and a manager will be until you hire the candidate and are able to watch them in action, you can get a good sense of which management styles they do well with and which they struggle with from looking at their past. “When interviewing candidates, first find out where they’ve excelled, then find out the role the manager played.” says Adler. Ideally, you want to choose candidates who have thrived under similar management in the past.

3. Ask about pace.

How to Determine Cultural FitPace can vary a lot from company to company and some candidates are better suited to working at one pace than at another. Typically, small companies in growth phase need candidates who can work quickly and make decisions without much hemming and hawing, while larger, more stable organizations need candidates who can pay great attention to minor details to make sure that nothing is overlooked and results are consistent with established standards.

Adler recommends asking candidates questions to determine how they make decisions, how cautious their decision making process is, how they deal with ambiguity, and how they handle changing direction quickly. A candidate who thrives in a fast-paced environment might feel frustrated at a company with a slower pace, while a candidate who prefers slower-paced environments may not be able to handle the demands and stress of a fast-paced company.

4. Ask about structure.

Similar to pace, companies can differ a lot in how much structure they provide for work. “Some mature organizations are heavily structured at both the organizational and process levels” says Adler. “Others are built to be more flexible and are able to respond more quickly to changing market conditions.”

Creative, entrepreneurial-minded candidates are less likely to be happy at a company with a lot of pre-determined structure, and are thus less likely to be loyal to the company and remain for many years. Candidates who like set rules, clear guidelines for how, when, and where to do their work, and the ability to leave work at work will likely appreciate more structure.

5. Ask ‘soft’ interview questions.

To determine cultural fit, you need to include ‘soft’ questions in the interview. These questions aren’t designed to determine the candidate’s technical skills and ability to do the job in question, but rather to determine how well the candidate will fit into your corporate culture and how much the candidate will enjoy working with you.

Here are some examples of questions that hiring managers swear by.

5a. What does teamwork mean to you?

“I ask each and every employee what teamwork is to them, but I tend to have them answer this question in front of the other team members they would be working with” says John Rampton, founder and CEO of Due. “This allows the appropriate team members to decide if the candidate is the right fit for them. I've found that they weed people out a lot better than I ever could!”

5b. What was the greatest workday of your life?

“I believe we found this question on LifeHacker and have found it to be an incredible tool for determining if an employee is going to be a good fit” says Joshua Dorkin, founder and CEO of Bigger Pockets. “The question asks the candidate to think about what it would be like to work for you and what is going to inspire them. If their ‘greatest day’ doesn't reflect our ‘purpose’ for them, they aren't likely a good match for us.”

5c. What are your three ideal job qualities?

How to hire top performers“I always ask candidates to tell me the top three most important things about their ideal job” says Samira Far, president and founder of Bellacures Franchising. “Their answers can tell you a lot. For example, if one of the three is not financially oriented, this person may not have a good sense of measuring their work and time.”

5d. What are you passionate about?

“Finding someone who can combine a mission-driven mindset and a creative, can-do attitude is key to fitting in with the ThinkCERCA team” says Abby Ross, cofounder of ThinkCERCA. “Our mission is at the core of everything we do, so we ask interviewees about why education is important to them personally. We also spend the last 10minutes just getting to know them as a person.”

5e. What personality qualities do you butt heads with?

“I often tell the story about when I was young and found the one personality that I'd butt heads with” says David Ciccarelli, founder and CEO of Voices.com “In turn, I ask, ‘What kind of personality or specific character trait seems to rub you the wrong way?’ The answer often reveals the type of person they won't get along with and, as such, if they'll struggle to connect with the people in our company.”

In addition to these questions, make sure that the candidate in-person exemplifies the same values that they listed in their application. Those values, in turn, should match your corporate values. “Ensuring consistency with values and professional ideals reduces the chances of a decision backfiring and negatively affecting company culture” says Saltzman. Sometimes a candidate seems perfect on paper, but reality doesn’t match up. The in-person version of the candidate is the one that will potentially join your team, so base your decisions off of that.

6. Ask quirky interview questions.

Despite companies like Google admitting that their zany interview questions are pointless, Saltzman recommends asking a quirky question or two if your company has an emphasis on creativity and quick thinking. While the actual answer doesn’t matter, asking the question will allow you to see how the candidate responds to an unexpected challenge and how quickly and comfortably they think on their feet and deal with surprise. A candidate who panics or shuts down most likely isn’t what you’re looking for.

7. Have candidates meet the team.

Teamwork at workAs the last phase of the interview process, after you have determined that the candidate has the requisite technical skills to do the job, have a few of your current employees conduct a cultural fit interview. "It's crucial to ensure the team is prepped on the purpose of a culture fit interview prior to participating," says Tara Kelly, CEO of SPLICE Software. “Employees should be encouraged to ask questions that tie into the organization's value system.”

The team interview also allows you to see how the candidate interacts with your current employees. “It’s worth noting that it can take a bit of time to adjust, so there’s no need to immediately turn them down if they take a second to warm up” says Saltzman. Nonetheless, if the candidate is a fish out of water for the whole interview, they’re unlikely to be a good cultural fit.

That said, don’t confuse hiring for cultural fit with employing a homogenous workforce. “A candidate’s approach shouldn’t be so divisive that it creates rifts among employees, but you shouldn’t be afraid to hire somebody whose personality clashes with your own” says Sathvik Tantry, says cofounder and CEO of FormSwift. “If you perceive that a candidate would make a meaningful contribution to your company while maintaining decorum, that candidate might be a cultural match.” Diversity in the workplace improves performance, so look for candidates who are a little bit different, but will still fit in well with your corporate culture.

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Danai Kadzere

Danai Kadzere

Danai is a Content Marketer at Happie. Before Happie, she worked as a freelance writer, ghostwriter, and children's book author, after graduating from Harvard University with a BS in Human Evolutionary Biology. If she's not working, she's probably reading, baking, or getting lost.