Culture Fit or Trap?

Culture Fit or Trap? May 28, 2012

“Wow, we just spent two months pouring over resumes, getting recommendations from headhunters and interviewing candidates. We finally selected someone and now after 45 days, we have determined that he is not the right fit?” The exasperated CEO asked, “How did this happen?”

This scene is not uncommon in many organizations usually when culture fit is ignored or glossed over. Why do people succeed in some organizational cultures and fail in others? And, equally important, how can you avoid the culture trap?

Companies like Southwest Airlines and Zappos have brought culture fit into the forefront as a critical part of hiring the right talent. They have shown us how assessing candidates on factors such as being customer focused or having a sense of humor can make a big difference in whether a candidate is a fit for the company or not. Screening for background, skill set, experience and competence only gets you part way there. Having clarity on your organization’s values (not what you aspire them to be, but what they are) is the first step. You need to answer questions like: What do we stand for? What is our code of ethics? What are those principles that we won’t compromise for financial gain? What is the one value that without it, our organization would not be the same?

At the 25,000 foot level, a company’s values are hard to argue with. For example, if one of your values is “integrity” or “doing the right thing,” it’s easy to get agreement from most that integrity is important. However, the proverbial devil is in the details. What one person sees as behaving with integrity can be different for another. A useful exercise that we often help organizations implement is to engage employees at all levels of the organization to define behaviorally (observable, measurable or verifiable) what that value means to them by taking each company value and asking 3 questions:


1. What behaviors do NOT reflect the value of _______________?
2. What will team members be saying and doing with each other that shows our commitment to this value?
3. What will we be saying and doing with customers that shows our commitment to this value?

By breaking out the value behaviors, you can ask behavioral based questions in an interview to uncover examples of past behavior that may or may not fit with the values of the company. Let’s take the value of integrity again and let’s say that one of the behaviors you identified is telling the truth. A question you could ask to assess whether or not someone aligns with that behavior might be: “Can you think of a time when you felt that you had to bend the rules in a work situation because following the rules wasn’t the best course of action?” It’s surprising what some people say in response.

I interviewed a candidate for a position and asked that question. To my amazement he said: “Our company policy on travel is restrictive, downright cheap actually. So I just max out my expense reports and it all works out fairly.” Would you hire this person? I didn’t. I’m convinced that if I had shown him a list of the company values, he would have said, yes, these align with mine. It wasn’t until I started asking questions that required a behavioral example that I could see that this wasn’t the type of person who would fit the culture.