The Paradox of Cultural Fit

Values-based interview

A structured, values-based interview process can deliver quality candidates while reducing unconscious bias.

By The Editors

Making great hires is about recognizing great fit. Most companies aren’t just looking for candidates with the right skills; they want someone who aligns with their culture. In fact, according to a report by West Monroe Partners, 60 percent of organizations integrate a cultural fit evaluation or behavioral interview into their hiring process. But while this approach sounds great on paper, it could create an environment that stifles rather than encourages innovation.

Here, Lindsay Maanavi, talent acquisition manager of West Monroe Partners, shares how organizations can probe beneath the surface of a resume to more fairly and accurately evaluate a candidate’s potential success within an organization.

HRO Today: What is hiring for cultural fit?

Lindsay Maanavi: In the best-case scenario, hiring for cultural fit means looking for people who will be able to adapt quickly to a company’s behavioral norms and style. If you are looking at two candidates with the exact same skill set and technological expertise, the conventional wisdom is that you’ll want to hire the person who seems like they’ll fit in best with the team. Unfortunately, cultural fit often gets boiled down to who you’d rather have a beer with—or in the consulting world, be stuck at the airport with—and then decisions are made on likeability.

HROT: What are some of the pitfalls of this approach?

Maanavi: Cultural fit interviews often lead to hiring people who walk and talk like others in the company, particularly if the interviews are unstructured and provide no parameters on what “fit” actually means. It is easy to introduce bias during a cultural fit interview. For example, let’s say a candidate went to the same university as you. You might unconsciously prefer them over someone else because you share that in common. This could lead you to eliminate candidates who could bring diverse perspectives, ideas, and approaches just because you had a shared experience with another candidate. Diverse ideas are often a core strength of any business. By recruiting and retaining talent that can bring diverse perspectives to the table, organizations can craft ideas and solutions no matter what team members have in common personally.

HROT: What do you recommend instead?

Maanavi: I recommend interviewing for values alignment instead of cultural fit, and our firm made this shift in 2017. Taking a values-based interview approach helps us put our emotions and gut feelings to the side and solely focus on how a candidate’s values align with those at our firm. The values contribution interview allows us to determine whether the candidate’s professional outlook, values, and behavior is congruent with our core values, which include:

  • best and brightest;
  • client service;
  • employee owned;
  • fun;
  • integrity;
  • meritocracy;
  • nimble;
  • people first;
  • practical innovation;
  • quality over growth;
  • respect for diverse experience and thought;
  • social responsibility; and
  • stewardship.

The interview focuses on a few core values, such as “respect for diverse experience and thought” and “nimble,” which are critical for success at the organization. This approach also helps us determine if the candidate can thrive at our firm: We use it as an opportunity to set expectations around travel, autonomy, initiative, and collaboration. We see interviewing as a two-way street and want to make sure we are making decisions based on how we will both mutually contribute to each other’s success.

HROT: What types of interview questions should TA leaders be asking?

Maanavi: We ask behavioral-style questions, which are designed to show us a candidate’s internal motivations, using our values as a framework. Every time an employee conducts a values contribution interview, we provide an interview guide with sample questions and the qualities we are looking for under each value.

For instance, one of our core values is “respect for diverse experience and thought.” We are passionate about working with and learning from colleagues with different perspectives. In alignment with this value, we ask: “Tell me about a time when you worked with a team with different approaches or skill sets.” We’re looking for someone who responds in a way that demonstrates they can successfully work with clients and colleagues with different backgrounds. If they struggle to share any examples of how they successfully partnered with someone who has a different working style, they may struggle or be unhappy in an environment like ours.

In this way, the approach empowers both the employer and the candidate. Each of us can establish expectations for the potential relationship before making a commitment, and each will be equipped with the information needed to make a good decision.

HROT: How can TA leaders ensure candidates align with company values?

InterviewingMaanavi: It’s up to TA leaders to empower hiring managers and those conducting interviews to be successful in consistently evaluating for values alignment. One of the challenges with our former “fit-based” interview approach was that it lacked structure and guidance on what “fit” meant. For the values contribution interview to be successful, we knew we needed to provide a more robust framework or it would simply be two sides of the same coin.

In a firm of 1,400 people, there are hundreds who conduct interviews—and introducing a new element to our interview process is a big change. We created a values contribution interview training program, along with an interview guide, to ensure employees understand the framework, how to assess for values alignment, and how to avoid topics that may trigger an unconscious bias response. Employees are required to take the training before they are allowed to conduct the interview.

HROT: Do you have a specific example of when this hiring approach worked?

Maanavi: We were having challenges filling a new and unique role that was created as the result of growth and required a new skill set. We brought in a number of people for interviews who looked great on paper but struggled to articulate compelling examples during the values contribution interview. We decided to take a chance on someone with a non-traditional background for an interview, and I’m so glad that we did. We were blown away by their in-depth and personal examples, openness, and overall authenticity during the values contribution interview. There were a few conversations around whether or not this person would succeed based on their skill set, but their strong alignment to our values solidified our decision to hire them. Two years later, I’m proud to say that this person is still with West Monroe and has made significant contributions to the organization.

Posted November 18, 2019 in Talent Acquisition

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