by Sharon Florentine

How to use culture interviews to build a better team

Aug 12, 2015
CareersIT JobsIT Leadership

Companies ranging from big names like Pinterest to small startups are conducting culture interviews at every level to help build cohesive teams that click. Here's how to do it right while avoiding pitfalls and common mistakes.

Book with culture written on its spine
Credit: Thinkstock

Determining how well a job candidate will mesh with an existing team’s culture is one of the great challenges businesses face when recruiting and hiring talent. Some organizations, like Pinterest and customer experience software provider SPLICE software, address the issue by performing “culture interviews” to ensure their hires’ strengths and attributes will positively impact team dynamics.

“It’s something every great sports team understands. It’s not just important for one member to be great, it’s about how teams support, inspire and connect with each other that really leads to success,” says Tara Kelly, SPLICE’s CEO.

How it’s done

How does SPLICE do it? Kelly says that with three offices in geographically distant cities — one in Calgary, one in Toronto and one in Chicago — it’s critical that it’s handled efficiently so no one’s time is wasted, but that it’s thorough enough that candidates are well-vetted. “These interviews always are done in person, and we ask three people from each office; nine total. We created a spreadsheet that includes all our core values and our mission. Each person gets to come up with questions they feel will uncover how the candidate’s values and mission align with ours,” Kelly says.

Then, the general process works something like this: the interviewers’ impressions are recorded on the spreadsheet. After the interview, scores and impressions are tallied up and used along with information on skills, experience and knowledge as a basis to make hiring decisions.

Kelly and her team have tweaked the process along the way. For example, she says there used to be a standard set of culture questions asked at interviews, but those ushered in a whole new problem that had to be addressed. “We used to use a standard set of questions like, ‘Tell me something you’re really proud of,’ or ‘Tell me something you’re really good at,’ but what we realized is that neither our interviewers or the candidates had room there to be authentic. They were reading from a script, working so hard to ask the ‘perfect’ question, and that led the candidate to work too hard to come up with the ‘perfect’ answer — they weren’t being honest,” Kelly says.

How to gauge responses

Now, SPLICE lets interviewers come up with their own questions that can help them get to the heart of a candidate’s values, work ethic, teamwork skills and communication skills. “One of our core values as a company is ‘We believe it can be better.’ So, an interviewer asks something like, ‘How have you made something better?’ and that could mean they started a food drive for the homeless in their community. Or, they did a recruitment drive for their gardening club. Or, they reworked the parent volunteer schedule for their son’s kindergarten class — it’s not so much about what the answer is, it’s about being open to change and being open to driving that change personally,” Kelly says.

The challenges

Emphasizing culture to this extent brings some challenges, among them a tendency to exclude structure and a quantitative analysis in favor of a gut feeling. That can be just as one-sided as not taking cultural fit into account at all. “We try to strike a balance between having a structure in place so we can make evidence-based decisions and being able to have natural, authentic conversations around this. We want to take into account not just skills and experience, but get to the person behind the resume, behind the suit,” says Kelly.

You also should avoid mistaking a candidate’s personality for their cultural appropriateness. It’s easy to get them confused — this is one of the biggest pitfalls of focusing on cultural fit. If there’s not enough structure involved in the interview process and not enough emphasis on skills, experience and knowledge, you could exclude otherwise stellar candidates who just don’t have the same personality traits as others in the firm.

“In general, I’m skeptical of attempts to figure out whether someone fits a given culture. In many cases you’re just asking whether someone ‘fits in,’ and that starts moving further away from whether or not they can do a job or not. For example, if I swear like a sailor, and the culture is very proper, yeah, maybe I’m not a fit. On the contrary, if everyone in the company is a bunch of angry swearers, and I’m very proper and try to keep it clean, I could be incorrectly seen as passive, not strong, not tough-talking, and thus unable to get things done, even if it’s not true. Trying to find someone who fits that culture can actually backfire by weeding out someone who would be a great employee,” says Todd Raphael, editor in chief, ERE Media.

And remember that people are adaptable, Raphael adds, and can change their behavior or mask aspects of their personality that don’t seem to be a fit. “Like in my swearing example, culture sometimes says more about a company than about what’s missing from an individual,” he says.

A foundation of trust

The most difficult part of emphasizing culture in the hiring process is the trust it requires at all levels of the organization. When asking hiring managers and a candidate’s potential colleagues to interview and gauge a job seeker’s fit with the organization, C-level execs are placing their trust in that staff’s judgment and need to abide by what they decide. This can be tough for c-suite leaders to get used to. “The hardest thing we have struggled with is when, as a management team, we want to override the rest of the staff. We’ve done this twice in four years; one time it worked, the other time it didn’t. What we learned from both experiences is that, by doing things this way, we’re putting our trust and our belief in these managers and the staff,” Kelly says. Committing to a cultural interview process forced her and her team to look at how much they really believe in their teams, and how much they trust and value their contributions and opinions.

“It would be very easy to talk about how we want managers and colleagues to help in hiring for culture, but then nullify their decisions if we didn’t agree. But that’s not how we want to work as a company. If we have someone on our team whose opinion we don’t value, then maybe we need to look at ourselves as a culture, or we need to reevaluate why we think they’re a fit for our team. That’s what it’s all about,” says Kelly.