Picture this: You interview a candidate named Lee for a VP of Marketing role. Lee is extroverted. Articulate. Engaging. Lee even grew up in the same town as you. You had a blast talking about which of the high school teachers are still there. You walk out, and say to your colleague, “Lee would be a great cultural fit.”

A few months later, you scratch your head when Lee – now a new hire – behaves in ways you hadn’t expected. Lee’s pace is slower than everyone else’s – planning meetings for an hour that everyone else thinks can be dispensed of in 15 minutes. Lee is also not as detail-oriented as the culture would dictate.

We make lots of mistakes when ‘screening for cultural fit.’ We especially make mistakes when we hire marketers – since so many are indeed socially engaging and good at wooing us. (They are marketers, after all!)

Could you be making one of these mistakes?

Mistake 1: You and your colleagues struggle to define and articulate your culture to candidates in the first place.

Mistake 2: You mistake familiarity with culture. In other words, talking to Lee feels familiar, so you race to the conclusion that there is a strong cultural fit there — before vetting it properly.

Mistake 3: You ask the wrong person to screen for cultural fit. Maybe you want to involve the most junior team member in recruiting. Or the most recently-hired person. Since these people aren’t yet able to screen for capabilities, you ask them to ‘report back on cultural fit.’ But this is really more of an exercise in checking the box. But you’re giving an important job to someone who hasn’t yet internalized the culture of the company — or who may not even have the professional experience to compare and contrast with other companies.

Mistake 4: You struggle to get candidates to get real with what type of culture they thrive in. You don’t know what questions to ask, or what prompts to give, to reveal if someone is a fit. So you have exchanges like this:

You: ‘What is the right cultural fit for you?’
Candidate: I want to work in an environment where people are nice and smart.
You (nodding): That’s exactly how I would describe the culture here.

[Word to the wise: “I want to work with mean, dumb people” said no one, ever.]

But you can do better. Here’s how:

1. Ask your candidates to reflect on cultural fit ahead of time, not in the moment. Cultural fit is nuanced. It can take some time to reflect on what makes a match and what doesn’t. So, spare yourself the imprecision of an off the cuff conversation.  Before your next candidate comes in for an interview, tell them:

“When we meet, I would like to have a real and honest conversation about our culture and the cultures where you have thrived and not thrived, since we learn from both. Please reflect on these questions ahead of time.”

  • What aspects of your current organization’s culture have helped you succeed and feel happy? Which aspects cause friction or frustration? Get granular.
  • How is a team, a company, a culture distinct because YOU were there?

2. Give your candidates an accurate picture of your culture, with specific examples. Share stories and tradeoffs, not platitudes. Think of what makes you unique, while avoiding typical HR-speak.

For instance, don’t say: “We have a work-hard, play-hard culture. We value collaboration and we celebrate achievement.”

That statement is undifferentiated. Your candidates have heard it before and it doesn’t really tell them much.

Instead, try this: “Compared it to the other places I have worked, this culture values speed. I was behind on my email from Day 1. If you like working at an exhilarating pace, this would be a good place. The flip side is you may feel burnt out from time to time. Also, some people here value speed of execution over personal relationships. This is an environment where the relationships emerge out of working together. It’s difference from a place where you build relationships first and then tackle the job.”

3. Incorporate an accurate description of your culture into your job spec. This way, you attract people who ‘opt in’ to the culture. And you help the people who don’t see themselves in your environment to ‘opt out.’

4. When you sense yourself “falling in love” with a candidate, hardball them. Ask them really tough questions. When you sense yourself writing a candidate off as ‘not the right fit’, treat them as a highly paid consultant who has all the answers you are seeking. This way, you’ll counteract your first impressions.

5. Expand your view from ‘people who fit the culture’ to ‘people who add to the culture.’  Think about where you are in your growth curve and your existing cultural dynamics. Do you need someone who is exactly like you and fits in exactly? Or is it time to bring in someone who will add to the culture in ways that you hadn’t thought of? For instance, if your team is full of people who tend to dominate conversations, a new person who is a bit more relaxed could balance the dynamic.

6. Get help with behavioral assessments. I really like The Predictive Index, which offers an easy 5-minute assessment, with instant results that tend to be eerily accurate. It’s so much faster than other assessment tools, and very candidate-friendly. You can review the results with your candidates as part of an honest conversation about how they are likely to interact with their work and their team.

7. Check out this piece on Get It Right Or Get It Done? A Framework For Figuring Out That Elusive Cultural Fit