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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

Hiring for Cultural Fit

Hiring for Cultural Fit post image

I definitely don’t keep the count but I believe that throughout my career I run more than a thousand interviews and hired way more than a hundred people. I have a confession to make: vast majority of these interviews were run poorly and many of those hires, even the right ones, were made on wrong premises.

I started hiring when I worked in a 150+ big company. Not much later we were absorbed by our big brother – a 3000 big organization. The hiring model I’ve seen there is something that you would have easily guessed. A set of questions aimed to verify technical skills, occasionally augmented by a couple of puzzles to show how the candidate thinks. That’s exactly the pattern I followed when I started running interviews myself.

I think it took me a couple of completely wrong hiring decisions till I started paying much more attention to non-technical traits. I mean, stuff like communication skills seem obvious. The question is how much weight you attach to the fact that a candidate is a good or a poor communicator. And of course communication is only one of a numerous so called soft skills.

Experimentation with the interview process made me focusing on tech skills less and less over time. I could still name hires, who eventually didn’t fit.

It took more than ten years and a bunch of people who I considered good fit in one organization but not in another to realize one crucial thing. There is such a thing as fit between an individual and an organization. The easier part of this equation is the former. We all can be described by our traits. At the same time, which is less intuitive, a company can be described in a similar manner. So what would we get it we written down all the company traits?

A company culture.

If there’s a mismatch between individual’s traits and a company culture there will be friction. You can tell that verifying past hiring decisions. You can tell that looking at people already functioning within the company as well.

OK, so again, what are we typically focusing on when recruiting? Technical skills. Does it help to figure out whether a candidate would cohabit well with the rest of a team / a company? Would “very little if at all” be a good guess?

It may be easier with a couple of examples. Imagine a small company where people are pretty open in front of others, rather outgoing, ready to help each other on the slightest signal that such help is needed. Imagine that an extremely skilled developer joins such a group. The guy is closed, not very sociable and feels that his contributions are best when he’s left to work alone without interruptions. Is the company well-suited to leverage the guy’s technical skills?

Imagine a team working on a kind of a death march project. No matter how miserable the future looks like the whole team feels they are in it together. They work after hours to save as much of the project as possible. Well, almost. There’s one guy who isn’t that much into this whole engagement thing and basically just punches his clock every day. He may even be the most skilled person in the team. Would he be valued by other team members? Would his contributions be really worth that much as his skills would suggest?

If we looked for a root cause of the problems in either case we wouldn’t discuss the guys’ technical skills. It’s the fact they’re misfits. What makes them misfits though? It isn’t a comparison to any single person. It is about how the whole group behaves, what values they share and how they interact with each other. It is about how the guys are perceived on this background.

These are parts you should focus on if you care about how the whole group performs. In fact there’s more into this. Hiring a misfit cripples performance of both the misfit and the group.

Unsurprisingly hiring for technical skills and technical skills only is a good way to hire a misfit.

My challenge for you here is to answer the question how you actually verify traits that go beyond technical skills. Feel free to share them in a comment.

There’s one thing I hear very frequently when I talk on this subject. It goes along the line: yeah, sure, go hire people who fit your company culture and know nothing about coding whatsoever and good luck with that. Of course I don’t advice hiring lumberjacks as software developers because of a simple fact of a cultural fit. I simply point how much we overestimate value of pure technical skills.

Most of the time there is some sort of a base technical skill set that makes a candidate acceptable. I also believe that the bar is significantly lower than we think. In other words there is a good enough level beyond which a hiring decision should be made basing on very different premises.

I don’t try to discredit tech skills here. Actually, I value them highly. I simply believe that it is way easier to develop one’s programming skills that to change their attitude. That’s why the latter is so important during recruitment.

That’s why I see so much value in hiring for cultural fit.

An interesting side discussion is how the existing culture influences individual’s behavior and attitude and how the individual affects the culture. This is something company leaders can use to steer (to some point) culture changes or to form (to some point) new hires. It works though only as far as the mismatch isn’t too big. Anyway, it’s a side discussion worth its own post.

in: recruitment, software business, team management

16 comments… add one

  • Srinath September 3, 2013, 2:13 am

    Nice article. I think most managers face a similar problem – of evaluating a person not just on his technical skills but on his aptitude, on being a “team man”, on his ability to express views etc. And it is a very difficult task to judge some one in an hour or two based on just asking a few questions.

  • Pawel Brodzinski September 3, 2013, 10:47 am

    @Srinath – I think most of managers don’t understand that they should look for anything more than tech skills. At least this is what I see.

    Then, there are quite a few of them who understand they are looking for more than simply technical skills, but they don’t see this connection between personal traits and company culture. In such a case they obviously look for more than just technical qualities but they can still end up hiring people who don’t fit.

    Finally, they’re those managers who get it. Few of them from my experience.

    Anyway, the latter two groups face the problem you mention: how to verify all the soft skills. Personally I love all sorts of internships. But I also study how people and teams act and try to experiment. That’s why I put so much focus on hiring women.

  • Yannick September 4, 2013, 5:20 am

    If someone has advices on how, as an interviewee, you can assert that the company is a cultural fit for you, that’d be quite interesting. The manager interviewing you might not be a reflection of the rest of the team and most small company’s don’t state their culture very clearly.

  • K September 4, 2013, 9:18 am

    And how do you ensure your culture is supportive of a diverse work force? I see red flags as soon as someone says that ‘culture fit’ is the most important hiring metric.


  • Pawel Brodzinski September 4, 2013, 11:49 am

    @Yannick – You ask a very interesting and important question. Basing on my experience I don’t have a good answer for it. I was tricked at least a couple of time to believe that company culture is something while it was something completely different.

    The best verification you can get is by talking to line people. They really know what the culture around is, even if they wouldn’t name it so. They’d describe typical and acceptable behaviors. Among their muses and frustrations you’d be able to catch values that the company lives by.

    There’s a caveat to this though. I assume that the whole conversation is completely honest. Otherwise you could be talking to hiring manager selling you the ideal view of the company anyway.

    Finally, in small companies there can be all sorts of situations. One thing is that when you are interviewed for a position in a small company you’re likely talking to CEO. His attitude tells you a lot of the culture of the whole company as the influence goes top down in this case. Another thing is that there are small orgs that very well know what kind of company they want to be, the culture included. Ask me about Lunar Logic culture and I can tell you what it is right now and how we’d like it to evolve.

  • Pawel Brodzinski September 4, 2013, 12:01 pm

    @K – Well, I’d say it depends on the culture itself. I mean there will always be a range of people who don’t fit, no matter the culture. The question is who is in this group.

    If, as in cited article, the way people behave drives women away from an org I’d point how hostile this very culture is for women. You could come up with the examples based on race, beliefs or sexual preferences equally easily. In all those cases it is the culture I wouldn’t like to be a part of.

    At the same time in my company, the part of our culture is pretty much the opposite – we hire women whenever possible and build the org which drives women in, not out. This is also hiring for cultural fit.

    So don’t blame the tool (hiring for cultural fit). Blame how people use the tool.

    And by the way, let’s assume for a moment that such a sexist, mysogynic company goes against hiring fol cultural fit and hires a woman. Would you like to be that woman, because I most definitely wouldn’t. It would be bad for both sides. I’d prefer to look for an org with a different culture.

  • Monika September 6, 2013, 6:38 am

    You’re absolutely right. A person who isn’t a cultural fit will never ever get up every day feeling all enthusiastic about what is there to come. As soon as you work in a team that can work hard & also celebrate together as friends, it will become a whole new experience what the work experience can become.
    In the company where I work, cultural fit is part of the general believe. It’s what we do and also try to enable others to do too.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    Take care,

  • Adam Smith September 9, 2013, 5:46 am

    Agree in principle, but for me it’s a mix that works well too. You seem to have associated cultural fit with being sociable, and misfit with being introvert.

    Is there a culture where introverts thrive? Is there another culture or company that could harvest the technical skills of a ‘clock in – clock out’ guy?

    The clock in guy will offer the same value in any organisation, that is one of technical merit, but not one of team spirit. He wouldn’t offer more at another company where it’s full only of this type of person.

    Yes it helps for everyone to be of the same culture, but a few ‘quiet’ guys don’t actually do any harm. Yes it would be better if they joined in, but what makes them the resilient and awesome technical engineer, is the same DNA that makes them a little quiet and not so hot on being a team player. So long as they don’t bring down the rest of the team and just get on with their job, that’s fine.

    Of course, no one will disagree with the fact it’s better to hire team players, but so long as 80%+ of the team are of this ilk, then this culture will still be strong.

  • Pawel Brodzinski September 9, 2013, 1:03 pm

    @Adam – It wasn’t my intention to create an impression that introverts are necessarily misfits. Same thing with guys punching the clock. In fact among the best people I’ve worked with there were both introverts and “clock in – clock out” types. On occasions a combination of both.

    You’re right – it is about creating a place where they can thrive.

    Having said that, there are many attitudes, characters and behaviors which would thrive in a very broad range of different cultures. Thus the cultural fit.

    The part which I don’t agree with is that as long as enough people fit the culture the remainder won’t be a problem. I’ve seen situations when an individual was influencing the culture way more than anyone could expect. It’s not only about how one behaves. It’s not even limited to one’s behaviors and their direct interactions with others. Do remember that one’s behaviors also tell a lot about what is acceptable and what is not.

    Some time ago I’ve heard a comment going along the lines “if not you the status quo with this guy would be sustained.” In other words the organization would send a message to employees that some behaviors are OK.

    Of course if that’s about being quiet that’s usually perfectly OK. But there’s a broad range of seemingly safe behaviors that simply go beyond of what’s acceptable within an existing culture. One nice example from my experience is encouraging “it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission” attitude. Would you say that this is harmful? Some organizations do. And they don’t like the misfits who think differently.

    This is another part of the story, which is evolving the culture. There’s no recipe for changing the company culture. What you can do though is to get on board people who aren’t completely aligned with the existing culture and see what is the impact on the existing landscape.

  • Ryan Notz September 16, 2013, 5:36 am

    Good post, Pawel

    You asked what readers do to ‘test’ for team fit. At MyBuilder.com, we’ve developed a set of questions that aim to uncover some of the traits that matter to us in that respect. We also do a minimum of 3 interviews, with a few different team members to try to get a better assessment. Part of this is a ‘meet the team’ session, usually in a pub. Though I should say that underlying all of this is the fact that as team, we often talk about our culture and values… so we’re consciously aware of them. Though knowing what to look for in respect to ‘fit’ when recruiting is actually a sort of happy accidental outcome of this cultural awareness.

    We also developed a hiring microsite: careers.mybuilder.com, that aims to articulate our culture a bit to candidates. We try to be very honest about the way that we are, in the hopes that the right candidates will be attracted while the wrong candidates will be repelled. Succeeding with that is more of an aspiration than a reality, but we try. We’re also experimenting with a more analytical way of assessing fit: saberr.com. I met these guys recently at Seedcamp and while they are positioning their (very early stage) product at assessing teams for investors, I am using it to assess candidates for fit in a different way than what we’ve done before. Our whole team filled out their questionnaire and we have identified traits where we are a bit over represented and areas where we are underrepresented (among other things). It is proving interesting and useful.

    Lastly, I see ‘fit’ as about half of the picture. Cultural fit is hugely important, but skills are the other half of course. You simply need both to have a good team member. With some roles (tech being a good example), it’s easier to assess skills than fit. With marketing roles for example, I find it easier to assess fit than skills. I think hiring managers tend to get lazy and ignore one or the other simply because recruiting is so incredibly painful. But of course the only thing more painful than recruiting is hiring the wrong person. Out of the frying pan and into the fire! Lessons are often learned the hard way, unfortunately.

  • KR September 19, 2013, 7:11 am

    If by “misfits” you mean true corner cases that would not fit within most organizations, then I completely agree, but then it’s a marginal issue and it’s easy to sieve out such candidates. Otherwise, I think the problem might be quite overrated and seems to be a “hire and forget” tactics aimed at minimizing coaching and team-building effort. If the company culture is strong and team spirit high, new hires will adjust in no time. People change their ways when they change jobs. I’d much prefer a team of good developers with various cultural backgrounds than a team of perfect cultural fits who can’t deliver anything on their own.

  • Pawel Brodzinski September 23, 2013, 3:26 pm

    @KR – By misfits I understand way more than “true corner cases.”

    The focus on cultural fit is actually pretty much the opposite to “hire and forget.” This is paying attention to coaching and team building from the earliest possible moment. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter that much how strong is existing culture – if there is someone who plays by very different rules it will start changing.

    There is something about human nature that we tend to level to the lowest common denominator. This unfortunately means that it way easier to worsen the culture than to improve it. Broken window theory tells one such story, but if you look around you’ll find lots of those. It may as well be leaving the place (kitchen, toilet, you name it) clean when one leaves but it may be leaving the code clean when you’re done with it as well.

    People change their ways when they change jobs. To some point. The questions is what they bring along. I’ve seen enough of extremely harmful behaviors from very good engineers to learn to look broader.

    And it’s not a binary choice, you know. By the way – best technical talent only is not even close to enough to get the job done (and the right job done, and the job done right). But that’s another story.

  • Helen December 2, 2013, 9:21 am

    Interesting article. I strongly agree with the fact that more emphasis needs to be put on cultural fit. A regular job, afterall, does usually mean that at least 40 hours are spent under the same roof as your colleagues. I’ve been looking for examples of questions I could ask to see if the candidate would be a good cultural fit. If it helps, here are a few I will ask the next interview:
    1. Tell us about your best/worst colleague.
    2. How would you like me to tell you you’re doing a great job?
    3. What management style gets the best results out of you?

    I’d love to hear more suggestions, and see what worked well for other HR people, particularly if they are related to hiring web developers.

  • Pawel Brodzinski December 5, 2013, 1:24 pm

    @Helen – One of my struggles in this area is figuring out how people would interact with each other. This is a complex domain and I don’t think there are simple questions that can validate whether people fit.

    The best thing I could come up with is to give people a chance. So basically I eager to hire someone for 3 months but I make it clear from the very beginning that they should feel hired only once the decision after these 3 months is made.

    What I get is unfiltered version of a person. I mean during an interview most of people are stressed, thus they are not fully themselves. On the top of that you get no validation whatsoever whether what they tell is true. Finally, there are only that many situations that you can ask about.

    Instead I just get a chance to work with someone for a few months, thus see how they really are everyday. How their ups and downs look like. How they collaborate with other people on a team. This is so much more than I could potentially get from any interview.

    A caveat to this is that it is hard. The more formalized the recruitment process is the harder it might be to use such an approach. It also is quite an investment on our end. And it’s not really about money, but about time we invest to work with a newcomer.

    On all accounts though it is a worthwhile investment.

  • helen December 9, 2013, 10:05 am

    @Pawel — I agree, it’s not an easy question to answer. For this reason, we’ve been leaning more on a social hiring approach than a formal one. As a small web development agency, we first review a candidate’s portfolio. This tells us a lot more about their capabilities than a resume ever would, because the work speaks for itself. People can easily “fluff” their CVs, but there’s proof in the pudding, so to say.

    We also include our company values in the opening paragraph of all job descriptions, and we use Facebook as a tool to show off our culture, so that we are very transparent and clear about what candidates can expect from us on a daily basis.

    If we like what we see in their portfolios we invite the candidate for an interview, which is always close to the end of the work day so that after the interview, we invite him/her for a drink with the team. That’s the most telling portion of our hiring process. So far we’re 9 people with 9 unique personalities. It’s great to see how the candidate interacts with our group; they don’t need to be hilarious or talkative or social stars — we just like to see what their communication styles are. It also reduces the need for both owners and the project manager to be included in the formal part of the interview, since they will all have the opportunity to interact during the social part.

    So far we’re 2 for 2 with this system, and as we continue to grow, we’ll be using this approach.

    Hopefully other can use this approach as well; it not only tells us about the candidate, but it also tells the candidate about us. No surprises or time wasting on either side.

    What we do at my company (a small web development agency), is

  • Pawel Brodzinski December 11, 2013, 3:14 pm

    @Helen – Interestingly, but unsurprisingly, we do many things in a similar manner, including focus on candidate’s past work (portfolio, github account) and being very transparent with our culture.

    We don’t go for drinks with candidates – it’s hard enough to gather everyone for a company party :) I think though that we can pretty easily find a neat equivalent of that which would work in our context.

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