Hiring for cultural fit key to building teams and reducing turnover


While labor markets continue to tighten across many industries, I’m reminded of a key concept I believe many CIOs (and certainly managers of other departments) frequently overlook.

Steve Brown at Midmarket CIO Forum presented by Boardroom Events

Steve Brown is the VP-MIS at ECMD, Inc., a North Carolina-based distributor of home building materials.

IT leaders are focusing too rigidly on technical skills and ability in the recruiting and hiring process while overlooking cultural fit – how well a prospect will fit into a company’s culture, your shop culture, and within the IT team of which he or she will be a part. We obsess over resumes, certifications and technical details, and thereby often miss the human aspect.

The unfortunate results include increased turnover, low employee engagement, low employee morale, and low team morale. We all know the high cost of turnover and degrading effects of low engagement and morale, so shouldn’t we focus on avoiding those impacts as much as possible?

It’s analogous to today’s professional athletes. A standout player might be a superstar on the field or court but be “poison in the locker room”, whereas another, ostensibly less talented, player may be a “glue guy” that brings better chemistry to a team, and with it, more success on the field or court. Some baseball teams actually tried videoing their dugout and running the captured files through facial analysis to judge happy and unhappy players – as well as quiet and talkative ones – in an attempt to measure team chemistry. NBA teams also now analyze the stats of lineup combinations to see which sets of players perform better as a group, not just individually.

Objectively Define Your Company’s Culture

As a starting point, evaluate your company culture and your shop culture. Is your culture formal or informal? Do you communicate mostly with memos, emails, phone calls, or at the water cooler? Do you allow jeans in the office only on Fridays, every day, or not at all? Does your company have a strict, top-down management style, or is it flat and less formal?

Then think through how your IT department operates. Do you have strictly segmented duties with less collaboration and interaction, or are duties and projects less structured, with a heavier reliance on collaboration, coordination, and informal communication? Do you work mostly in small teams, large teams, or in strongly defined hierarchical forms with strict lines of communication? Are your work areas open, flexible, and informal, or does everyone stay in their own cubicle or enclosed office all day?

Once you have reflected on these questions, and thusly have an honest, objective picture of your own company and shop, then you can begin to recruit candidates who will better fit your individual situation, and thusly become happy, productive, long-term team members.

Focus on Process or Results?

Once you’ve clearly outlined your organization’s culture, use this not just as a filter during your interview process, but emphasize your working environment as a selling point. If you have a lot of structure and everyone works in cubicles, say “We have a strong, process-oriented culture, and we provide a working environment where you can focus on your work”. If you have an informal culture and loosely defined approach, you might pitch a developer with “We all wear jeans to work every day, and we won’t micromanage you – we’re solely interested in results”. Yes, some candidates will blanch, look physically ill, and be ready to run to the exits, but those prospects would not have fit into your shop, anyway, much less been successful. Better to get that out into the open as quickly as possible, and thereby leave yourself with a better pool of possible future employees.

Yes, some firms use standardized testing to judge personality and general intelligence, or use oddball, open-ended questions (like what is your favorite movie, or color, etc.) in an attempt to discern fit, but I believe direct dialogue in a relaxed interview process is a much better method of determining this.

Obviously, we do try and validate a candidate’s technical credentials; after all, they do have to have the required skills to perform the given job. We typically use 15 minutes of the initial interview to verify basic resume information. It’s surprising how often people exaggerate or lie on a resume, but it’s usually fairly easy to uncover in a direct discussion. Then in the first face to face interview (one phone interview typically precedes a face to face interview), we will give the prospect a technical pop quiz – an oral exam with 4 or 5 specific questions that a well-qualified candidate should be able to answer. In our experience, that’s all it takes to validate technical bone fides. The weak ones will either give outright erroneous answers or dance around the questioned subjects; the strong ones will actually get excited and expound at length on the topic of inquiry.

Use Team Members to Validate New Hires

With less time taken in examining the technical qualifications of the interviewee, we then have more time to focus on the interpersonal aspects we’ve been covering here. We will usually talk a good hour on the social-cultural-personality areas, and then bring in 2 or 3 other IT team members for shorter periods of interview. I’ve found that it is especially useful to bring in folks from other areas of our IT shop; in so doing, you will obtain other viewpoints, and more eyes and ears on the prospect. Doing that, we have often found a red flag, where one or two people will catch something the rest of us missed. Moreover, using more interviewers has another positive: since they have met the new hire and been included in the hiring process, those team members will be immediately ready to welcome the new hire in with open arms, right off the bat.

I am not singling out IT executives in failing to focus on team fit in recruiting and interviewing; it is my experience that most executives across the company give it insufficient weight and effort. However, by changing our main recruiting priority from the technical to the human, and aiming to hire qualified prospects that fit well into our teams and companies, IT leaders can create happier, more stable, and more productive teams for our organizations.