How to Interview Your Candidates for Culture Fit


everything-were-looking-for-almostI’m about to make a statement for which I’ll take endless grief.

You may vehemently disagree and I can understand that. But I’m compelled to share my conclusion, after 25 years in executive search and building four companies.

Here it is.

Culture fit is one of the most overused and over-hyped concepts in business today.

Yep. For years, I bought into the conventional wisdom.

I thought that culture was incredibly important and I worked endlessly to find people who “fit” my companies’ cultures and—more recently—my clients’ cultures.

Now, 25 years into the game, I have a rueful confession: I still haven’t found a reliable way to assess a candidate for culture fit. More importantly, I’m convinced that striving to build a strong culture can backfire.

Here’s what I do know:

The fixation on culture fit often is at odds with building a team comprised of diverse backgrounds, thoughts, and ideas.

When a team—consisting primarily of a certain gender, from a certain race, who went to a certain school—recruits for “fit,” they’re likely going to hire more of the same.

And that’s not just bad for diversity itself; it’s bad for business. More diversity drives more profits.

So what to do?

Rather than recruit for culture fit, I’m convinced that it’s far better to recruit for DNA match.

What is DNA?

It’s the 3 or 4 characteristics that your top-performers possess. These qualities become the soul of your company. DNA is a powerful concept when you commit to never again hiring someone who doesn’t possess them in spades.

No exceptions. (No matter how great their job competencies & skills.)

Oh, and you’ll also need to exit those mis-hires who snuck through the recruiting process but demonstrate a lack of them.

When I started my first company Career Central in 1996, my leadership team and I pinpointed three qualities that we knew our employees needed to possess: tirelessness, selflessness, and fearlessness.

This was our DNA. Because we assembled a team of diverse—but like-minded—folks, we had near-perfect retention despite being located in the scalding hot Silicon Valley job market of the late 90s.

DNA can be defined and modeled. Articulating it was one of the first things I’ve done in the companies I started. And my most successful clients do the same.

Culture, on the other hand, means different things to different people. It’s squishy.

Do you want to entrust your most important business decision—hiring—to a subjective concept that everyone sees in their own way?

If you think there’s a consensus about the meaning of culture, try Googling it. The opening section of “organizational culture” on Wikipedia contains six separate definitions from leading academics.

Even within organizations, there isn’t much agreement about culture. Usually, it’s perceived in one of three ways.

For some, culture is expressed by cool perks such as ping pong tables, free snacks, and treadmill desks. When recruiting, are we supposed to ask: “How’s your backhand serve?” You might develop a great ping pong team that way—but who knows if they’ll grow your business?

Then, there are people who think that going out for drinks or golfing with co-workers each week constitutes a great culture. This can be fun, but it has nothing to do with commitment or performance. Plus, excluding the non-drinking, non-golfing rock stars on your team will drive them for the exit doors. What a waste!

Other leaders believe that culture involves building a team where people share similar attitudes, behaviors, and thinking. I can think of no faster path to ruin in today’s complex, global, fast-changing business environment.

Plus, if you work in a larger organization, you know that the feel of one department can be very different from another.

At most hedge funds, for example, the culture of the trading floor doesn’t resemble the culture of the IT department. If you insist on measuring candidates against a company-wide culture and neglect departmental needs, you’ll end up with poor fits based on an ill-conceived definition.

Your carefully defined DNA reflects hard-wired traits.

People either have them or they don’t. They’re not trainable or coachable. In fact, psychologists say that by age eight, we are the person that we will become.

But it doesn’t mean these people are alike in other ways. People with the same DNA can have vastly different viewpoints on a wide range of subjects. And harnessing these diverse views is invaluable in decision-making.

My friend Brad Feld, a leading venture capitalist, says simply: “Go for culture add, not culture fit.”

And I couldn’t agree more.

Recruit people who possess the competencies for the specific role and match your company’s DNA. Beyond that, focus on people with different perspectives and experiences who will expand and grow your culture.

In short, recruit people to stand out, not to fit in.

The first step is to articulate your company’s unique DNA. To help you do that, I put together this short video:

Here’s the new video.

Let me know what you think.

Never settle,

Jeff Hyman

Jeff Hyman

Jeff Hyman is the author of Recruit Rockstars: The 10 Step Playbook to Find the Winners and Ignite Your Business. The Chief Talent Officer at Chicago-based Strong Suit Executive Search, Hyman currently teaches the MBA course on recruiting at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and hosts the five-star Strong Suit Podcast. Jeff has been featured by Inc., Fortune, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, CNBC, Bloomberg, and other media outlets. Learn more at

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