Cultural Fit Doesn’t Exist … hiring for long term success over ‘fit’

Hiring is a critical part of a leaders role and a significant part of recruiting the right person for any role is working out whether the candidate is a “Cultural Fit”. In my experience that is an impossible question to answer. Having interviewed hundreds of people across many disciplines, I have come to recognise that there is no such thing as an individual fitting the culture. Either an individual will add value to the organisation’s team and both will therefore thrive and be successful, or they will have a negative impact. There exists no neutral state of “cultural fit”.

This recognition leads to a much more valuable and measurable hiring bar:

Will this candidate be successful in our environment?

When coupled with its “competence in discipline” partner question we have a strong and objective hiring bar by which to make a rational and objective decision:

  1. Is this candidate technically competent to do the role we would ask them to do?
  2. Will this candidate be successful in our environment?

For any Hire decision, there should be objective evidence that amounts to a YES to both of these questions.

What is Culture and why do we evaluate candidates for ‘fit’?

There are many definitions of “Company Culture” but my preferred definition is:

Culture is the set of values and behaviours that anchor all interactions within the team or organisation. They guide the way the team interacts with each other, the way the team conducts itself in the wider marketplace and it indirectly influences the value the team delivers to our users or customers.

A company’s culture is generally agreed to be born through its early stages – beginning with the team of co-founders and their first employees. It is almost certainly defined within the first 25–50 hires. It may never be written down accurately or completely but it exists in every interaction of the team – in what behaviours are accepted and those that receive an anti-body response and are rejected. It is both fragile and anti-fragile.

If you add a single person into a team of 4, the dynamics of the team will change. At the very least the communication effort is multiplied by a factor of the increased number of people. If that person has a positive impact – embracing the team’s values and behaviours while proactively challenging the group to be better – then it most likely produces a successful outcome over time. However, if they have a negative impact, the team’s productivity and the impact they have will deteriorate almost immediately, and likely indefinitely. While the strongest of teams can absorb this for a longer period of time, it will eventually cause irreparable damage. This will then require costly intervention.

As we focus more on smaller empowered teams this remains amplified and the impact of a single bad hire is more noticeable. The 800th hire requires the same investment and consideration as the 8th.

It is also important to avoid the trap of considering success for one team, rather than the larger group or whole organisation. There will always be cross team collaboration but it is also likely that people will move around, particularly as the organisation grows and projects change. Therefore we are not looking at the immediate team but whether they will be successful over the long term and across multiple teams.

If we let this standard slip – the ripple effect of a bad hire is significant enough to have an impact across the organisation. This is what we are trying to address in assessing cultural fit.

Setting up for success

The challenge we face as hiring managers and interviewers is determining what impact the candidate will have on both the immediate team and the wider communities within the organisation. This impact will determine the, hopefully increased, success of the team and, just as importantly, the success of the individual within the organisation. When interviewing for “Cultural fit”, we are looking for the signals that tell us that it is likely to the candidate will have a positive impact on the teams:

  • Will this candidate add value to our teams and increase its level of success, now and in the long term?
  • Will this candidate find value from working within our team and be themselves engaged and successful?

This is summarised into the hiring bar question:

Will this candidate be successful in our environment?

It is therefore essential that we identify and document the core set of behaviours that are both accurate and desired, for people to be successful in our environment. These may be aspirational, but should be clearly evident in how the team interacts to deliver value.

Assessing the likelihood for future success through past performance

The likelihood of a candidate’s success in our environment is most accurately predicted through identifying their past performance in situations that are common place in our teams. Therefore targeted behavioural and situational interviewing is the single most effective technique in assessing this. By talking about the candidates experiences, performance and results in a very specific situations, we can tease out their competencies, strengths and weaknesses in an objective manner.

This behavioural interviewing is one of the most valuable tools in our armoury and yet is often over-looked for more superficial (“Describe your current role?”) or seemingly cool (e.g. brainteasers such as “How many people are currently in the air onboard a plane, worldwide?”) interview techniques. Behavioural interviews allow us to evaluate a candidate against the pre-determined set of behaviours or competencies by focusing on the explicit evidence and examples. At the same time, they also make the candidate feel at ease and in control as they are talking about their own concrete experiences. They do not specifically address details you read in the candidate’s CV, but get to the layers of detail below that where reality exists. In fact we do not need to read a candidate’s CV to interview a candidate using this technique.

There are several mechanisms we can use, but ultimately I favour an approach that is based upon the concepts identified in the STAR technique. By leveraging this technique as a base we can cover off one or multiple sets of the behaviours and performance (with results) that you expect from a member of the team in a single starter question in the form:

“Tell me about a time when you…?” or “Give me an example of a situation where you…?”

The STAR technique leads the candidate into describing their experiences in a structured mechanism:

  • Situation – the context of the experience.
  • Task – the tasks that were needed.
  • Action – the actions the individual performed.
  • Results – the desired outcomes and those achieved.

Using this approach, a single question can allow us, as interviewers, to get an insight into the various values, behaviours and actions the candidate has concrete performed and map that against the pre-determined behaviours for success in our environment. I consider this more like an inter-related tree than a linear script – one situation, leads to multiple tasks, leads multiple actions. The conversation allows me to traverse specific branches that cover the behaviours I am looking for evidence of. A good interview is one where I have likely asked no more than one or two of these starter questions, but managed, through conversation, to gather multiple examples. Over time and much practice this has become second nature but I actively encourage those just starting out in assessing cultural fit to use this technique as a guide and plan for these drill down questions in advance.

The outcomes of the behavioural interview should be clear evidence of how the candidate has demonstrated, or not, the behaviours we are assessing for. This can form the basis of prediction of the impact they will have in our environment.

Keep it Objective

The most critical factor in this approach, and any interview, is objectivity. How many of us have seen this type of feedback on a candidate?

I like this candidate, we had a great conversation and got on really well. We should hire them.

That type of statement does not make clear any evidence that supports a such a decision. It is critical that we don’t slip into a state of focussing on our subjective assessments of the candidate. We actively focus on leveraging their experiences to gather the evidence that forms an effective and objective summary of the interview.

Deep Rooted Belief vs Situational Driven Behaviours

It is important that we get below the surface of the candidates experiences. One of the nuances of behavioural interviewing is determining what are ingrained, belief led behaviours of the candidate and what are behaviours that are caused by the environments that they have experienced to date. For example, if an environment is driven by command & control type behaviours, a candidate will likely have been forced to behave with similar characteristics to be successful there. Those same behaviours may be red flags for our environment. By getting to the deep root of why someone behaved in such a way is an important aspect to discovering this.

It is likely that specific situation led behaviours can be coached out and the candidate can then be considered as likely successful in your environment. Candidates may demonstrate this through talking about their motivations for a change, or through the behaviours they dislike seeing in given situations.

Deep rooted beliefs that don’t align with the specific values and behaviours that anchor your team are unlikely to be coachable. This is likely a candidate who will not be successful in your environment, as the drag on the organisation will be greater than the reward.

To get to this level of detail, we should look for multiple data points to determine whether there are environmental factors that distorts the evidence as presented. Focussing on the candidate’s actually actions, approaches in the face of the environment, can also give a real insight into this.

Beware the Bias

A critical part of objectivity in the interview process as a whole is recognising that there is a set of biases and pressures that exist throughout our hiring decisions that we have to be more conscious of:

  • Hiring Manager Bias – There are significant pressures on the hiring manager to fill the role. Will they take someone who can do the job but less than successful in the long term?
  • HiPPO [aka Seniority] Bias – The most senior person’s recommendation is the result for the candidate. Whether this is subjective or not. Particularly where there is a mixed group of interviewers, this is one where objectivity and evidence should change the conversation.
  • CV Bias – Given the candidate’s current title, their extensive history – we begin to make assumptions and set expectations for the candidate. This can be dangerous as it puts a different set of expectations on different candidates. These assumptions lead to subjective decisions.
  • Unconscious Bias – Is this person wearing red or blue? Did they shake your hand with over confidence? How does this factor into your hiring decision? Unconscious Bias is a strong factor, but hiring decisions should be made rationally. By focusing on the evidence we can manage our biases and ensure we remain objective.[1]
  • Decision / Recommendation Bias – This manifests itself more in the presentations of feedback following the interview. If I have subjectively decided we want to hire this person, the evidence presented will unconsciously favour the evidence that supports that over other evidence available. Its important to document your evidence and then make a decision.

This is particularly applicable when it comes to assessing the likelihood of a candidate being successful in our environment.

Every team should crave diversity. Different experiences and different expertise can create dynamic and effective teams – teams that support and challenge each other and become greater than the sum of our parts. However “cultural fit” can also be interpreted as “same as us”. If this happens, you create the conditions to reduce diversity not increase it. In identifying the common values and behaviours that make people successful, we are identifying exactly what will allow our diverse workforce to gel and function well as a team. Our role as interviewers is to focus on all of these not the alternative factors.

“Will this candidate be successful in our environment?”

As a leader in a large Product Engineering team – I continue to invest more than a day a week in ensuring that we recruit the best possible people to work with. I do at least 4 interviews (and subsequent decision review ’wash-ups’) almost every working week across all functions / disciplines. Much of that time is spent is on addressing the question of whether candidates will be successful in our environment – particularly the case if I’m interviewing cross-discipline e.g. for Finance, Talent or Legal teams – where I am in not qualified to assess the candidate’s competence. I have also defined the role of the Bar Raiser programme at Skyscanner – the leading interviewers that facilitate an objective Hiring Decision for the candidate and organisation.

Through this experience I have determined that Cultural Fit does not exist in a way that we can objectively evaluate and that there is no such thing as a culturally neutral hire. The aim of our assessment process is to as accurately as possible, predict whether a candidate will be successful in our environment. An individual will only add value to the organisation or have a negative impact. They will be successful or they will not.

Therefore we have refined our hiring bar to be explicitly focussed on this and its equivalent, discipline competence partner:

  1. Is this candidate technically competent to do the role we would ask them to do?
  2. Will this candidate be successful in our environment?

The best way to determine this is through the candidates explicit experience, performance and results of dealing with the types of situations that our team face on a very regular basis and determine whether that match the expectations of our team in the same scenarios.

Ultimately a hire-no hire decision is a question of risk and risk management weighing up the evidence presented. Making an objective, evidence led hiring decisions is the most important part of the overall interview process. It should never be neglected. The impact of a False positive (a bad hire) is a significant cost and drag on an organisation while the impact of a False Negative (a rejection that goes on to greater things) is always just a disappointment. Whatever the outcome failing to address the questions of the impact the candidate will have on the team is a significant gap in the process.

  1. Unconscious Bias is an important topic in its own right – here are some highly valuable materials from Google 1; 2 and Facebook I’d recommend to start exploring the topic. ↩︎