How the best bosses & companies interview for ‘Culture Fit’. Guest blog: Mikey Trafton.

Guest blog from Business of Software 2012 speaker, Mikey Trafton, of Fire Ant Software. You might not have heard of Fire Ant Software yet but Jason Cohen credits him with giving Jason the best advice he has received as an entrepreneur. Listen up!

You can also join Mikey Trafton on September 5th at (11.00 EST), (08.00 PST), (16.00 UK Time) for an online Q&A.

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How the best bosses & companies interview for ‘Culture Fit’

michael traftonInterviewing prospective employees is hard, especially for young entrepreneurs that haven’t hired many people in previous jobs. But it’s one of the most important things a CEO will do. If you hire the wrong employee, it will cost you money and can drive away both your customers and your existing employees.

I speak from painful experience that a bad hiring decision can affect your business for years down the line. Most business owners will tell you that the hardest mis-hire to correct is when an employee has the right skills for the job but just isn’t a culture fit.

Even one team member that doesn’t fit in can sap the energy from your other people in the office, ruin morale, and kill productivity. To prevent this from happening, you must interview for culture fit.

Of the thousands of prospective employees that my companies have looked at over the years, I have personally interviewed every candidate that has ever received a job offer. My colleagues ask questions about job skills and soft skills, but the area that I focus on when interviewing is Culture Fit. That’s how much I believe in this topic.

Here are 5 things to think about when interviewing potential employees for ‘cultural fit’.

1. Understanding the Culture You are Trying to Build

Before you can interview for culture fit, you have to figure out what culture you want. This means determining what’s important to you. Ask yourself what your core values are, what type of work environment you want, what kinds of people you enjoy being around. What traits do you admire in other people? What are your pet peeves that you want to make sure you exclude from your culture? The answers to these questions will be the foundation of you culture. These are the traits for which you will be interviewing.

2. Open Ended Questions

When I’m interviewing for culture fit, I like to start by asking some open ended questions so that the candidate can’t guess what answers I’m looking for. I want to see how well he articulates himself and whether he has thought much about culture and work environment. If you hire an employee that thinks culture and work environment are important, they are more likely to reinforce your culture after they start working there. Here are some of my favorite open ended questions:

  • Describe the culture at your last company. Was that a culture in which you thrived, or one where you struggled? Why?
  • What are you looking for in your next company?
  • If we hire you, we are going to want your help in hiring future employees.
  • What do you look for in team members?
  • What behaviors are you unwilling to tolerate?

3. Targeted Questions

After I get a sense of what the candidate has experienced and what she is looking for, I spend some time assessing the specific personality traits I want as part of my culture. Here’s my favorite exercise: Compile a list of workplace attributes that an employee at any random company might encounter. Make sure the list includes some aspects of the work environment that you desire, and some that you don’t really want. For example, your list might include items such as “employees have lots of autonomy”, “company serves a social mission”, “quiet work environment”, “employees socialize with each others’ families”, and “flexible work hours”. You’ll want to come up with at least 20 items. Give the list to your candidate and tell them to select the 5 items that appeal the most to her and rank them 1–5. This will tell you a lot about what’s important to her and whether she is likely to fit well with what you are looking for. You should also develop a set of interview questions related to each of your core values. Here are some examples:

  • If being ethical and acting with integrity are core values, ask “Tell me about of a time when you discovered a coworker was not acting in an ethical manner. What did you do?”
  • If working hard is a core value, ask how many hours she works in a typical week.
  • If creativity is a core value, ask her to describe some of her hobbies outside of the office. Is she creating things (woodworking, writing, drawing, composing music, building web sites, etc.)?
  • Do you need coachable employees? If so, ask the candidate to bring in a sample of her work, and give her a critique of it. See how she takes the feedback. I find this to be one of the most telling parts of the interviews I conduct.

You should also get some feedback from your other team members. Have your candidate go to lunch with 2 or 3 of their potential coworkers, and get a report from the coworkers afterword. Do they want to hang out with this person again? Do they want her on their team?

4. Weed Out Questions

Finding a candidate that is a culture fit is not just about the personality traits they have – it’s also about the traits they lack. Someone that is a smart, hard-working, and friendly might be a great fit for my culture. But if she is also the kind of person that covers up mistakes or thinks she’s always right, then she definitely wouldn’t fit. When interviewing for culture, you need some “weed out” questions to identify candidates that have these anti-culture traits. Do you hate whiners and complainers? Do you want employees that take responsibility for their own successes and failures? Ask about a previous project that didn’t go well or that was cancelled. Drop some leading questions that try to deflect the blame: “It sounds like the project manager was in over his head” or “it seems like the rest of your team didn’t support you very well”. Does the candidate take the bait and start placing blame? Or does she defend her coworkers and accept some of the blame herself? Ask the candidate to tell you about her last couple of bosses. What did they do well and where could they improve? If the candidate devotes most of the answer to bad-mouthing her previous bosses, the chances are that she’s going to be bad-mouthing you someday, too. Remember the potential work environment list I described in my favorite exercise above? My list includes “working with new technologies”. If this makes it onto a candidate’s top 5, I know she is probably NOT a good culture fit. The technologies we use are often dictated by our clients, and many times, we are stuck working with some outdated programming language or integrating with an antiquated legacy system. A better fit for us is someone that is interested in problem solving regardless of the technologies being used.

5. Making the Decision

Having a strong company culture comes from having all the employees committed to that culture. And the easiest way to make that happen is to hire people that already share your values. If you spend 60–90 minutes of your interview asking questions like the ones I describe here, you’ll have a pretty good idea of whether the candidate is going to fit with your culture and be happy at your company. These employees will be more loyal, will work for less pay, and will work harder for you, especially when times get tough. Want to learn more about building a great company culture? Come to the Business of Software Conference in Boston Oct. 1–3, 2012.