Hiring for culture: How to find the right fit

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Looking past practical skills when recruiting for compatibility can be mutually beneficial for staff and businesses, with one analysis revealing employees whose personal characteristics are well matched by their work environment, colleagues and supervisors are more likely to remain with their organisation, perform better and have greater job satisfaction.

With a PhD in Organisational Psychology and vast experience as a consultant working in cultural change, coaching and leadership, Josephine Palermo explains how hiring candidates that complement your workplace culture can add value to your business.

How to define and implement an ‘ideal’ culture

Every organisation’s culture is a unique tapestry of the traditions, practices and set-up of its workspaces, as well as the behaviours and attitudes of its staff and leadership team.

The characteristics that best suit your organisation will vary depending on what you’re trying to achieve. For example, military personnel relying on each other in the field or emergency room workers might need a very process-driven and hierarchical culture, while office-based creative teams might be more open and collaborative.

Defining your company culture, Palermo says, is essentially about asking: “How do we do things around here?” In other words, what are your core beliefs and values, how do employees dress and interact, and what do they see, hear, say and do every day?

Once you’ve identified the cultural conditions that will best help you achieve your business goals, the next step is implementing the strategies to get closer to these ideals – using predetermined measurables, such as employee engagement, to track their impact.

“The best thing to do is to ask people themselves, because different groups will have different ideas about what could influence culture,” Palermo says. “It may be that people decide it’s really important in their ideal environment for there to be high trust, so then the question is, ‘What could we do to establish more trust between people here?’

“Or it might be really important in an ideal culture for people to really understand that they’re valued and that their strengths are recognised, so then the strategies might be around rewarding and recognising staff.”

Don’t be afraid of diversity

Recruiting for cultural fit doesn’t mean hiring people who are carbon copies of your leadership team – in fact, research clearly shows a diverse workforce can be beneficial to your bottom line.

As Palermo points out: “Part of hiring for fit is getting a diverse group of people who you know will work together really well and who will leverage each other’s strengths and differences.”

It all starts with the job ad, where everything from the image you use to what you put in the description is saying something about the type of people you want working for your organisation.

“We had an issue where we had a lot of males applying for a trainee program for field technicians, but not enough females – and since females can easily do the job, there’s no reason why only males should apply,” Palermo says.

“But when we looked at the job adverts, we were using a photo of a male in a hard hat. We weren’t really talking about the skills required to do the job, and it just wasn’t appealing to females.”

Looking to build a more diverse, inclusive culture, the business changed the image, job description and the way they recruited by bringing people into a group-based assessment centre – at one point, successfully doubling the number of female candidates.

Ask the right questions

When interviewing potential candidates, Palermo says she focuses on questions that will reveal what kind of personality they will bring to a role, what their thinking and feeling styles are, and particularly how they relate and collaborate with others.

For example, she might ask how they’ve approached challenges or worked with people in the past, and what they learnt about themselves from this.

A more direct approach can also help determine cultural compatibility. “I always ask someone to describe what kind of environment they need to really optimise their own strengths – that gives you an idea about whether the kind of culture you have is the kind of culture that will enable them to thrive.”

But it’s not just about the candidate’s attitude – a recruiter’s mindset can also help, or hinder, their chances of finding a good fit.

“We often think that the onus is on the person applying to really win the job,” Palermo says. “But I always think it’s an opportunity to promote my organisation and work on it being an employer of choice. Because if you’re trying to get really high-quality candidates, they will have choices.

“So I always talk about the values of the organisation. I always talk about my leadership style. I talk about the culture of the team. In that way, I’m actually selling the job to the right person.”

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