Avoiding Common Traps When Hiring for Values and Cultural Fit

A recent article in TechRepublic focused on how Salesforce, one of Fortune’s best places to work, hires great people who have the right stuff and share the values of the fast-moving company.

Salesforce’s winning formula? They hire for the competencies that matter in specific jobs, using behavioral interviewing to zero in on evidence of competencies and what candidates have actually done to demonstrate them. Salesforce is also focused on training people in what to look for and how to conduct interviews that reveal whether candidates have the necessary competencies, while also mitigating biases associated with typical interviews.

Several points in the Salesforce article have parallels to our work around issues that have a significant impact on diversity – and they are often subtle and easy to miss.

Hiring for Values & “Culture Fit”

This is a topic of interest for recruiters and hiring managers alike – how to find people who are compatible with the culture of the organization and share its values. From the article: “I think that the real secret is that the company focuses really on values, and these values really lead to how we assess behaviors, both internally and externally.”

That statement points to a central challenge in how people who are hiring often think about “values” and “culture.” It’s common for me to hear things like, “I’m most concerned with hiring someone who shares our values.” Or, “It’s really important that we find candidates with the right culture fit for our team.” That’s not a bad thing, but it can be a problem when “values” or “culture” are not defined in ways that can be assessed.

The key is to translate values and culture fit into observable behaviors. What do people who exemplify them do that others do not? Even with popular values such as “customer-focused” or “acts with integrity,” it’s important to define them in ways that can be observed and assessed in a hiring interview.

Without a clear definition, people tend to “fill in the blanks” with whatever a particular value or cultural dimension means to them. Even more problematic is when you realize that “culture fit” really means “someone I’ll enjoy working with.” When “values” and “culture” aren’t explicitly defined, it often becomes a catch-all for “all my unconscious biases and how they make me feel about the candidate.”

I recently worked with a client’s CEO and his leadership team to facilitate a version of the training I had been giving to hiring teams across the organization. In the course of the program, the focus quickly shifted to hiring for values and culture.

Because we had helped hiring teams identify the competencies needed for many open positions already, we were able to determine that two competencies – intellectual curiosity and collaboration – were common to every job we profiled and matched up with the client’s top priority values. Now, having defined the behaviors indicating what best performers do, we could home in on how to interview for those qualities and include this in the design of the hiring process.

Hiring for Experience

A recent study quoted in a Harvard Business Review article, “Experience doesn’t predict a new hire’s success”, showed no correlation between an employee’s prior work experience and his or her performance in a new organization. Unfortunately, experience is usually the first thing companies look for when screening candidates despite the fact that it can limit diversity and remove high-potential talent from the candidate pool.

The TechRepublic article about Salesforce made a similar point. There was a “pervasive bias” in their sales organization that enterprise software experience was needed for success. They ultimately found that only 40% of top performers had that background and what they actually needed were people who worked fast and were results-oriented – competencies that differentiated the best from the rest.

I recently worked with a software client who had this same idea – that only people with enterprise backgrounds could succeed as sales professionals at that organization. Instead, we discovered something very different: What they actually needed were people who could work across different functions and get access to key decision makers. As a result, their hiring process is now focused on finding out if candidates have demonstrated those particular competencies in their previous work.

People often think they can “build” the right candidate with the right set of up-front requirements. (I call this phenomenon the “checklist syndrome”). But these requirements only serve to limit the pool of qualified talent based on access to these experiences. Instead, it’s better to ask what competencies an organization expects to get from the experience requirements and assess for those competencies directly.

For example, in a recent recruiting workshop for a financial services client, I asked about the 5-7 years of experience they said was required for a financial analyst job. The answer was, “We expect with 5-7 years of analyst experience, a new hire can work effectively with investors and know all the terminology needed to speak their language.” In that statement, they revealed that it was not years of experience, but knowledge of the language of investors and being able to use it effectively that were the competencies that were important!

Probing for competencies rather than experience greatly mitigates the impact of selection bias, and – as Salesforce found – provides a much more favorable interview experience for underrepresented minorities and women.

Final Thought

All of this points to the importance of investing the time and money on a consistent, structured hiring process and the skills needed to implement it effectively. Training, in particular, is critical given interviewing isn’t a skill typically developed elsewhere and isn’t a regular part of most hiring managers’ jobs. It takes new knowledge to implement an objective, unbiased competency-based hiring process and a different skill set to conduct a good behavioral interview. For companies like Salesforce and other premier organizations we are pleased to have as clients, this investment is definitely worth it!

For more information on Cambria’s Selecting for Success™ instructor-led and eLearning solutions, please click here.

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