I spent a few days last week at a recruiters conference in San Francisco hosted by Greenhouse--a hot new talent management system that every tech company in Silicon Valley is glomming onto. The big topic in three sessions was on the importance of cultural fit in driving employee engagement and job satisfaction and how to assess it during the interview. This is a critical topic since when otherwise talented people underperform it's usually due to a mismatch on cultural fit.

As I asked people to describe their company's culture most used some combination of the same words: drive for results, focus on the customer, driven to excel, maximizing employee satisfaction and a boundless team spirit. Despite how you label it I contend that cultural fit is largely dependent on these different core factors: the work the person is doing and how satisfying it is, the quality of the person's relationship with the hiring manager, the ability to work in a collaborative environment, fit with the pace of the organization, the bureaucratic structure of the organization and the candidate's overall adaptability to deal with these factors as they change.

All of the these factors can be assessed by digging into the candidate's major accomplishments using the most significant accomplishment question in the Performance-based Interviewing process. Here's how this works.

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How to assess the five factors that determine cultural fit:

1. Rate of change

The primary determinant of a company's culture is its growth rate or lack of it. Ichak Adizes' corporate life cycle model offers a good way to visualize this. People in fast-growing companies with limited resources must make quick decisions, rapidly adapt to changing business conditions, implement continuous process improvement programs, and be able to instantly collaborate. Stable and moderately growing organizations are more rule-bound, implementing change is more complex, and decisions are slow in coming due to the heavy review cycle. When asking the most significant accomplishment question during an interview, find out how the candidate made decisions, whether the person was cautious or not, how well the person could deal with ambiguity and how fast the person could change direction.

2. Degree of bureaucratic structure

Structure is different than pace. Some mature organizations are heavily structured at both the organizational and process levels. Others are built to be more flexible and are able to respond more quickly to changing market conditions. Think of any VC-backed startup versus any company that's been around for over 10 years. Being able to create some order out of chaos is not the same as being able to improve or sustain the order of the day. Probe your candidate with questions that will reveal how he/she deals with different degrees of structure.

3. Managerial fit

From a practical standpoint, the hiring manager's leadership style has the most direct cultural impact on a subordinate's motivation and performance. Google's Project Oxygen and Gallup's Q12 research validate this. Some people can work with all types of managers, and others can't. When interviewing candidates, first find out where they've excelled, then find out the role the manager played. If you don't get the managerial fit part right, expect lower performance, more conflict, decreased employee satisfaction and higher turnover.

4. Job fit

Success is problematic when hiring a talented person for a generic job. That's why it's essential to clarify job expectations upfront using a performance-based job description. These types of job descriptions define the top 6-8 performance objectives the new hire needs to achieve in order to be considered successful. By asking candidates to describe an accomplishment most comparable to what needs to be done, patterns begin to emerge that reveal the type of work that motivates the candidate to excel and the cultural circumstances involved. A job fit problem is easy to recognize: It happens when anyone is surprised that the job he/she was interviewed for is different than the one he/she is actually doing.

5. Adaptability

Few people can excel in all cultures, under all styles of management, and in all types of roles and organizations. The performance-based interview is designed to ferret this out by understanding the circumstances underlying the candidate's major successes. Even if the person's past performance matches your current requirements, it's important to understand if the person has been able to accomplish this work under different circumstances. This is also a strong indicator of upside potential. Those who are the most adaptable are likely to be your best hires since they'll be able to grow and take on bigger roles as your company changes over time.

The importance of assessing cultural fit cannot be understated. It's not a soft skill. It is the primary driver of motivation and on-the-job performance. Unfortunately, many managers and most companies give it lip service, measuring cultural fit more on personality and presentation skills. If you've ever hired a talented, smart, affable and articulate person who has underperformed, you've experienced the cultural misfit problem firsthand. While it takes extra effort upfront to avoid the problem, it takes months to eliminate the problem after the person is hired.