bruce-springsteen-06Company culture has become something of a buzzword in business today, but as a CEO, I truly believe that in my organization, at least, not only does hiring for culture represent one of our biggest priorities, but also, one of our biggest competitive differentiators.

I really believe that it’s what helps us attract and retain great talent, keep them engaged, and elicit great productivity from our employees. Recently, we completed a series of meetings designed around building our culture; in these meetings, we opened off by asking our current employees to describe, in their own words, just what our company culture was all about.

I was excited (and a bit relieved) to hear that many of the words we heard most often – entrepreneurial, laid-back, fun fair, human, collaborative, innovative and flexible, for example – happened to be the same values we’ve worked hard to build into our company culture.

While we’ve been successful so far, we know that it’s not enough to just create a meaningful company culture, but also, to actively maintain it.  That is what makes hiring for culture fit so critical.

Human Touch.

When we hire for culture here at WorkStride, we’re looking to do more than find people who share our mission, vision and values. It’s not just about finding candidates who would be fun to work with or who we believe would fit well on our teams.That’s part of the equation, but just as importantly, it’s also about hiring qualified people and setting them up so they’ll be in a position to succeed. It’s my experience that people are always at their best when they feel safe, productive and valued.

This might seem obvious, but it’s really not as simple as it sounds.

We’ve based our recruiting methodology – and hiring philosophy – around the processes and procedures laid out in the book Who: A Method for Hiring, by Geoff Smart and Randy Street. Using this framework, we create not just a job description, but instead, we create a mission statement for every position at the company. Those mission statements must be clear, measurable and manageable; for example, “to develop and improve internal processes for our customer service organization.”

With that end goal in mind, we’re then better able to anticipate the necessary outcomes that would result if that mission was filled, such as lower client response times, improved satisfaction scores, or successful deployment of new customer service tools, for example. Knowing the ends and the means allows us to then create a scorecard listing the top three to five most critical competencies that candidates must have to achieve those identified outcomes and ultimately, to help solve our bigger business problem.

While most job descriptions include a laundry list of “nice to have” requirements that almost no candidate could ever hope to fulfill, this methodology helps us to really focus on the most essential priorities for the position, and keep in mind what really matters throughout the hiring process.

Born to Run.

bsEach candidate is then interviewed by three to four different stakeholders – unless they are an executive, in which case, the screening process is even more rigorous. Just as important as every interview, however, is what we do before it.

Prior to meeting each candidate, the members of the hiring team gather to talk about the specific job competencies the job requires and how we plan to successfully screen for these skills during the interview process.

From there, each interviewer is assigned to handle a different competency – so that each will do a different deep dive into that aspect with the candidate. This ensures that we’ll be able to gain a better breadth of information and deeper insights into each candidate, while saving them the often tedious task of repeating the same answers to the same questions over and over.

It also helps to ensure that they’re giving genuine, thoughtful responses throughout the interview. One of the other ways I’ve found works best to ensure candidates’ interview answers remain candid instead of canned is by asking:

“Tell me about a time you worked on a business problem like the one we have. What would your manager on that project say about your work?” 

In this case, it’s not even the actual answer, but rather, their body language, that seems to be the most telling. The non-verbal cues candidates give when asked this question often say everything, even without the candidates saying a word.

After the entire team has had a chance to talk to the candidate, we then regroup and debrief, grading each candidate on a scale of 1-5 (5 being the highest) as to how well each aligns to the critical competencies on our scorecards.

This takes what’s often a qualitative, subjective process and ensures that our decision making is not only quantifiable, but also standardized and measurable. The final hiring decision must be the unanimous decision of every member of the interviewing team.

Consensus doesn’t cut it when it comes to culture. If even one member of the hiring team feels the candidate is not a fit, then he or she will not receive an offer. Period.


The Rising.

Even though I’m the CEO, I still try to interview every candidate who comes through the door, no matter what the position or job level might be. In my role as part of the senior leadership at the company, many times my role in the process is to do nothing more than to simply assess whether or not I think that a potential new hire fits in with our company culture.

When I’m interviewing for culture fit, a few of the questions I’ve found most helpful to ask include:

  • What do you enjoy doing outside of work?

  • If you could do anything in the world unencumbered by the need for money, how would you spend your time?

  • What non work-related skills would you bring to the company?

Truthfully, even with our rigorous process and quantitative approach to decision making, I still make a lot of my assessment based on the overall gut feeling I get for the candidate. While it’s imperfect at best, I’ve learned that you almost never go wrong trusting your instinct over your intellect, at least as far as interviews are concerned.

While our company is growing, we remain relatively small; this means that every employee plays a very hands on role in creating and managing our culture, a roll up your sleeves approach to keeping it “real” that leaves little room for the pretentious, detached approach to culture you so often see at larger organizations.

Now, by no means is every organization the same, just like there are few similarities between each hiring team and the critical competencies they’re looking for. The one thing that we do share, however, are the core values related to the way we operate, both in our approach to business and how we relate to each other.  It’s these values that sit at the core of our culture, and are the most critical for us to uphold. While it’s only natural to develop an immediate impression as to whether or not someone’s a viable candidate within seconds of first meeting them, sometimes your gut feeling can go wrong.

This is why we always employ a standardized scorecard; using this baseline helps to negate any weird hang-ups or subconscious biases we may have that are either unjustified or unrelated to the job – things like how a candidate is dressed or the way they act when they’re nervous.

This ensures we’re making our hiring decisions based on substance, not style, on quantifiable information, not qualitative observation.

That’s how good hires happen, in my experience.

That’s not to say this process is foolproof. No matter how closely you stick to a hiring methodology, no matter how diligently you screen your candidates or how informed you are when selecting new hires, you will still make mistakes. Let’s face it; no matter how we approach job interviews, they’re still a relatively short and inherently artificial process that can never truly replicate the everyday interactions you and the rest of your employees will encounter on the job with the successful candidate.

Even though interviews are admittedly flawed, however, doesn’t mean they don’t have to work in your company. Every company’s culture is different, which is why there are no ‘one size fits all’ solutions when it comes to screening and selecting candidates.

Getting hiring for culture fit right, though, might just be the closest thing to a silver bullet as any organization (or any CEO) could ever ask for. You just need to know what you’re aiming at if you’re going to hit your target, too.

jim-hemmerAbout the Author: Jim Hemmer is currently the CEO of Workstride, a software platform that helps companies recognize, motivate, and develop their talent through configurable software, modern rewards experiences, and strategic program design. Jim has more than 25 years of experience in the high-tech and communications industries, and has been a senior executive at companies in all stages of development from early stage to Fortune 500.

Prior to joining WorkStride, Jim was President and CEO of Antenna Software. Under his direction, Antenna evolved from very early stage to the leader in the enterprise mobility market, an achievement made possible by consistently executing on a clear vision for how the market would develop and having a keen understanding of enterprise customers’ needs.

Jim has also held leadership positions at ADC Corporation’s Software Services Division, Capgemini Telecommunications, and Computer Sciences Corporation. He holds a BS in Electrical Engineering from Rutgers University and an MBA degree from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

Follow Jim on Twitter @JimHemmer or connect with him on LinkedIn.