Culture guide: How to cut through the bulls..t? (part 2/2)

In part one we covered:

  • What is culture, anyway? And should we care?
  • How different companies approach culture?
  • Who should we (NOT) learn from?
  • How to define and redefine your culture?
  • Who are the people who influence your organization’s culture the most?

Part two starts with:

How to assess for cultural fit when hiring?

Assessing for cultural fit during the interview process is much like assessing soft skills and hard skills: 1. Make a list of the personal characteristics you want to assess; 2. Decide on which step of the process you evaluate them; 3. Write down how you assess each value – questions; non-verbal signals; wording; etc. Here are a few specific examples of values you may have (listed in order of difficulty to assess):

Easy to assess

Initiative – Descriptive questions about past behaviour usually work with this one. “Tell me about a time when you have initiated a project…” and then I make a deep dive with follow-up questions (What were the goals of the project?; What difficulties did you have?; How did you overcome them?; What results did you achieve?). Another approach is “What would not have happened in company X, have you not been part of it?”. Or go with “Tell me about a time when you saw something not done right which your boss have missed” and follow up with “What did you do?”.

Can be tricky

Responsibility – You can use an inverted approach “Tell me about a time when you failed big”. I usually give cases for homework and follow our overall communication with the candidate to get the whole picture.

Pain in the …

Loyalty – That’s a hard one. I would count on referrals and mutual connections for this one as it is difficult to assess it during an interview. The period the person has stayed with their previous employers is a sign but not always accurate. When I ask “Why you have left this and that employer?” I usually get socially-desirable answers. The following approach gives me more info: “I see that you have often changed jobs. If we start working together, I want to keep you longer in the company (…an explanation why this is important for both parties). What should I do in order to keep you longer?”

The generic approach

Some people prefer descriptive questions and cases which give you general information about what is really important for this person:

  • The work-happiness journey – Ask the candidate to draw a coordinate system with the Y showing the level of happiness, and the X showing the timeline. Let her draw a graphic with the level of happiness at each of their previous employers, while explaining why she felt that way.
The work-happiness journey
  • Example case – Imagine that you’ve been with us for 18 months and you’ve become very close with Joseph (you can call it a great friendship). Joseph leaves earlier on Tuesday but a client calls him for something urgent that needs to be done from his PC in the office. Your friend calls, asks you to do the job and gives you his password. You agree. While browsing through his PC to finish the task you accidentally discover that Joseph has been sending quite sensitive company information to one of our major competitors. What would you do?
  • Example question – “Imagine that we have just agreed that you will start next month at the company. Going out of the office, you see a friend of yours who tells you something about the company which makes you call us and reject the offer. What would that be?” or “What’s the perfect employer for you? Describe it…”.

How to root your culture in everyday work?

Your actions are the first and foremost sign of living or rejecting your values and cultural norms – there’s no shortcut. Culture is who you hire, fire and promote, they say. Culture is also what guides you when taking tough decisions.

Here are a few ideas how to stay close to your values and cultural norms on a daily basis:

  • Immediate feedback – If you see someone do something aligning (or against) your values, give them a quick immediate feedback the “one minute manager” way. Say what the behaviour is; how it is aligned (or against) the company values; why this is important. If it’s a praise, do it publicly. If not, do it in a quick one-on-one – don’t schedule a meeting, just ask the person for a five-minute talk. The sooner, the better.
  • Just say it – As simple as it sounds (almost silly), this one makes a difference. Try to mention your values on a regular basis in your day to day activities. Example: “Ellen (the Sales manager), asked me if we can prepare XYZ report for her. I know that our schedules are overbooked for this week but let’s give it a priority early next week. After all, caring is one of our key values.”
  • Culture meetings – Gather your team together to discuss the values and how they are interpreted by the different team members.
  • The wall of values – Chose a place at your office where you can display stories and examples from everyday work life which demonstrate living your values. This wall may as well be a virtual place
  • Weekly share – Make some time during all hands or another meeting where team members or you can share stories, demonstrating your values
  • Culture budgets – Put your money where your values are 🙂 If one of your key values is “Learning” you should have a learning section in your budget
  • Value specific practices/customs – You should implement activities which support your values. Let’s take the example with “Learning” again. Here are some ideas: organize a book club; sharing sessions where team members make presentations on different topics; regular get-togethers where team members make 10-minute presentations about a book they have read or a conference they have attended. Name those sessions “The three things I took from this event and how we can implement them”

How to assess your people against your culture?

The executives I talked with use one of the following approaches:

  • Make culture fit part of your regular assessments
  • Raise the topic of culture fit only if someone is not fitting 🙂

What do we do with cultural misfits?

You all have come across articles, stating that you should get rid of the people who do not fit your culture even if they are your best performers. Real life is not black and white, though. What should we do with the grey zone – the people who need improvement but are not totally irrelevant?

When we talk about culture fit we very often deal with character traits. This always comes with a big sign ATTENTION! DANGER. It’s usually the toughest feedback people need to digest. And if you want to provoke a change in one’s character, you need more than a black-belt for managing people. What you need is a magic wand 🙂 Changing ourselves is one of the greatest challenges we face, let alone changing others.

A CEO I talked with uses coaching. “If a person is not living one of our key values, I require that they work with a coach on a regular basis and this is a must for the person to stay in the company”, she said.

What I try to use is essay writing – I provoke my team to write essays on topics related to the challenges they face. E.g. – “How do I receive positive and negative feedback?”. I’ll write more about the topic soon.

Time restrictions!

The culture topic is vast. Be cautious not to get lost. You can easily fill up 60% of your team’s productive time with culture meetings. Don’t try to implement every recommended practice you come along. But chose a few. And that will make a difference!


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About me: Apart from acting as a CEO of DEV.BG (the biggest IT community in Bulgaria) I help CEOs of small companies build their business. If you face a case I can help you with, drop me a message on LinkedIN.

Excuse my English 🙂 English is not my mother tongue and as you have seen it may be improved. Though, I believe that my level of command of the language covers the basic criteria in order for me to convey my ideas.

photos: Toa Heftiba on Unsplash



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