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Ducks In A Row: Culture as a Hiring Filter

by Miki Saxon

I was delighted when I read Alan Lewis’ article in HBR on why his $600 million dollar company is more interested in a cultural match than a skills match when hiring. Although the interview techniques he describes may not travel well, the necessity for a cultural match is bang on.

As Lou Gerstner said after leading the turnaround at IBM, “Culture isn’t just one aspect of the game, it is the game.”

10 years ago I wrote an article for MSDN about how to use company culture as a screening tool to find good matches and avoid hiring turkeys of any kind that works at all levels; I’ve posted slightly updated versions on the blog every couple of years since 2006.

With hiring heating up in some sectors and still tight in others it’s more important than ever. The old management attitude of “hire, flip and replace if someone doesn’t work out” doesn’t fly well any more.

As important as cultural fit is in the ranks, it is a thousand times more important as you move up the management ladder and absolutely critical at the executive level—the higher the level of a bad cultural fit the more extensive the damage that will be done.

Don’t Hire Turkeys!
Use Your Culture as an Attraction, Screening and Retention Tool to Turkey-Proof Your Company.

Companies don’t create people—people create companies.

All companies have a culture composed of its core values and beliefs, essentially its corporate MAP (mindset, attitude, philosophy™); that culture is why people join the company and why they leave if it changes.

Generally, people don’t like bureaucracy, politics, backstabbing, etc., but when business stress goes up, or business heats up, cultural focus is often overwhelmed by other priorities.

In startups, it’s easier to hire people who are culturally compatible, because the founders first hire all their friends, and then their friend’s friends.

After that, when new positions have to be filled the only people available are strangers.

So how do you hire strangers and not lose your culture?

Since your culture is a product of your people, hire only people with matching or synergistic attitudes. The trick is to have a turkey sieve that will automatically screen out most of the misfits and turn on the candidates with the right values and attitudes.

Here is how you do it.

  • Your sieve is an accurate description of your real culture.
  • It must be hard copy (write it out), fully publicized (everyone needs to know, understand, believe and talk about it), and, most important of all, it must be real.
  • Email it to every candidate before their interview and be sure that everyone talks about the culture during the interview and sells the company’s commitment to it.
  • Everybody interviewing needs to listen carefully to what the candidate is saying and not saying; don’t expect a candidate to openly admit to behaviors that don’t fit the company MAP, since she may be unaware of them, may assume that your culture is more talk than walk or consider it something that won’t apply to her.
  • Red flags must be followed up, not ignored because of skills or charm.
  • Consider the various environments in which she’s worked; find out if she agreed with how things were done, and, more importantly, how she would have done them if she had been in control.
  • Whether or not the candidate is a manager, you want to learn about her management MAP, approaches to managing, leadership and work function methods.
  • Probing people to understand what their responses, conscious as well as intuitive, are to a variety of situations reveals how they will act, react, and contribute to your company’s culture and its success.

Finally, it is up to the hiring manager to shield the candidate from external decision pressures, e.g., friends already employed by the company, headhunters, etc.

Above all, it is necessary to give all candidates a face-saving way to withdraw their candidacy and say no to the opportunity. If they don’t have a graceful way of exiting the interview process they may pursue, receive, and accept an offer, even though they know deep down it is not a good decision.

A bad match will do major damage to the company, people’s morale, and even the candidate, so a “no” is actually a good thing.

Remember, the goal is to keep your company culture consistent and flexible as you grow. From the time you start this process, you need to consciously identify what you have, decide what you want it to be, publicize it, and use it as a sieve to be sure that everyone who joins, fits.

Use your cultural sieve uniformly at all levels all the time. If someone sneaks through, which is bound to happen occasionally, admit the error quickly and give her the opportunity to change, but if she persists then she has to go.

Do this and watch retention, creativity, productivity and morale surge ever higher.

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/zedbee/103147140/

4 Responses to “Ducks In A Row: Culture as a Hiring Filter”
  1. MAPping Company Success Says:

    […] your culture, by using it as a hiring filter you can get out of your comfort zone and stop hiring people like yourself—who are most likely to […]

  2. MAPping Company Success Says:

    […] have long recommended using culture as a hiring filter and still believe it is one of the best around, since attitude is far more important than skills […]

  3. MAPping Company Success Says:

    […] that means being willing to pass on people who have the right skills, but not the right […]

  4. MAPping Company Success Says:

    […] wrote Don’t Hire Turkeys! Use Your Culture as an Attraction, Screening, and Retention Tool and Turkey-Pr… 15 years ago and it’s just as true today as it was […]

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