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Clarifying Culture Fit – The Hiring Manager’s Cheat Sheet

by Kate Jolly

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According to HR experts, culture fit is more important now than it was a decade ago; particularly in the fashion and retail sectors. 

Around 90% of the candidates that TSHR interviews list culture fit as one of the most important criteria in their job search. Bad company culture is also cited as the number one reason for resignations.

The truth is that we work in an increasingly competitive and candidate-short market, where many candidates have 2 or more job offers to consider. In the same way that consumers can choose to shop with one brand or another, candidates can pick between work environments. In such a challenging market, a good culture can help to attract the best talent and in turn ensure the financial success of your business.

In this article, I’ll define what culture fit really means and offer some practical advice on how to measure it correctly and objectively throughout your hiring process. I’ll also pass on tips from HR experts at the likes of Under Armour, McDonald’s, Australian Brands Alliance and the Trak HR Consulting team.

So, what is culture fit?

In short, culture fit is about ensuring that a prospective employee is going to flourish in the work environment that your company offers.

A company’s culture is made up of dozens of tangible and intangible features, which could include work practices, attitudes and values, to name a few. You can think of this as the company’s personality. Similarly, every applicant has their own unique professional style and will be more productive in some environments than others. The aim is to find what Emma Welch, the Talent Acquisition Manager at McDonald’s, calls “a comfortable hum of collaboration between a new staff member and the existing team.”

Why? Because “unlike your friendship group, you can’t choose your work mates, yet ironically they are the people you spend most of your waking hours with. It’s important that trust can be developed and that it’s a positive and safe environment for people to ask questions and develop/grow into potential leaders and specialists in their career field.”

It's also beneficial from a talent acquisition perspective, as Kelly Hunter from Australian Brands Alliance points out, “Finding a candidate whose professional style aligns to the business’ operational style is essential to ensure the smooth day to day running of your business… as well as improving retention and even attracting talent by internal recommendations.”

How to hire for it in three steps

Step One: Define Your Culture

Firstly, in order to assess whether a candidate fits with your company’s culture, you need to establish what your company culture is truly like. It’s a good idea to engage with employees on this, as they have plenty of first-hand experience! You could use employee surveys, focus groups, or even psychometric testing to define some of the key competencies that your team share.

A great example comes from Under Armour’s Katy McKinlay, who says “Humble and hungry is the word that we use to describe our team, and this is something we look for in every candidate. I believe this is something most teammates would say as we discuss culture on a regular basis.”

Step Two: Start Assessing Applicants Straight Away

You can start assessing an applicant’s match for your culture as soon as you review their resume –– what is their communication style? What have they listed as their ambitions? This should be part of your thought process when reviewing initial applications, as it may save you time, or form the basis for some of your interview questions.

For example, Kelly says “if their personal overview talks to their desire for structure and hierarchy, and we have an entrepreneurial and agile structure, is this the right environment for this candidate?”

Step Three: Agree on Some Suitable Interview Questions

Most companies will already have a multi-faceted interview process. Instead of adding an entirely new step to this process, you may want to incorporate some suitable questions throughout. We’d recommend the following:

- Ask some behavioural/competency-based questions, where the candidate is required to talk through some of their past experiences at work, as this helps to predict future behaviour. For instance, if the applicant has historically struggled in an unstructured environment, and your office environment is quite chaotic, this could indicate a lack of alignment. Emma gives us an example of how to frame these questions “Can you tell us about a role where you felt demotivated or like you didn’t gel with the team?”

- Ask some direct questions about how the applicant learns and works best.

For example, Kelly asks candidates “What type of culture do you excel in? What types of environments have you struggled to excel in? For example, do you like an environment that’s structured or unstructured?”

- To go a step further, you could also consider using psychometric tests to assess applicants against the desired core competencies. This could be via CEB testing or SHL tests (something we at TSHR can help you with).

Tips for Hiring Managers

It’s critical that you offer every candidate a fair, consistent process, especially when assessing their culture fit. Your brand reputation is critical, and a bad interview process can really damage this.

Candidates’ most common complaints relate to a lack of feedback after interviews and/or receiving unclear feedback that doesn’t help them to improve. Having taken time out of their working day to meet with a prospective employer, every candidate should be entitled to clear and helpful feedback following interviews.

To ensure that you aren’t being unfair or allowing personal bias to cloud your judgement, we’d recommend ensuring that every aspect of your culture is something that can be talked to and explained. For example, when rejecting a candidate, you ought to provide clear, justified feedback.

My colleague Melody Bleakman, who is part of our HR Consulting practise says, “It is not acceptable just to say ‘you don't fit our company culture’, you need to provide examples of why. What behaviour, work style, etc. does not fit?  This also ensures that the candidate is clear and minimises any distrust towards the business, puts accountability on the hiring manager and prevents potential discrimination.”

If you want to get to know the candidate, make sure that you ask questions in the right way. Emma Welch suggests asking something such as “tell us a bit about you, what do you like to do on the weekend?” or “What would the perfect team building day look like to you?” Don’t discount a candidate if their answer is different to someone else’s on your team. The focus should be on whether a candidate will work well with their team and bring out the best in others. Employees should complement one another, and sometimes opposites attract.

Tips for Candidates

When prepping candidates for this line of questioning, tell them to be honest and authentic. Questions relating to culture fit are not designed to catch anyone out – they are a mutually beneficial part of the process.

We’d advise candidates to spend some time reflecting on what has and hasn’t worked for them in the past. If there was one business that they loved working for, they should have a think about what made them enjoy it. Again, honesty is key, and inauthentic answers can usually be identified. 

Hiring for culture fit takes some thought, but it is worth the time investment. “Culture fit is sometimes MORE important than technical ability. You can train skills, you cannot train or create harmony/collaboration/energy or performance. Magic cannot be bottled,” Emma reminds us.

Cultures can take a while to transition, so we recommend following these steps and making positive changes quickly. Those who are late to the party will feel the effects. Katy concludes “Retail is far too competitive now and companies need to focus on ensuring they are hiring the people that will complement their company culture, support their mission and in turn, help to drive success.”

About the author: Kate Jolly is a Senior Recruitment Executive at TSHR and has a focus on senior sales and account management roles within the wholesale and consumer sectors. If you would like more information or advice with constructing interviews or assessing culture fit, she’d be happy to help... katej@tshr.com.au.