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Ask HN: How do companies go about getting cultural fit with a candidate?
32 points by alinalex on Mar 8, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 56 comments

I recently learned that the concept of cultural fit was originally about being a fit for the process and work culture, not about being best friends with one's teammates.

What does that actually mean?

Well, for instance, someone who wants or needs to be told exactly what they're expected to do and how to do it is not a good cultural fit for us - we need people who can show initiative and direct their own work.

Someone who wants to work 6pm-2am is also not a good cultural fit. While we offer some flexibility in work hours, we rely too much on reasonably-synchronous communication (aka slack) for collaboration.

And we can't hire selfish or self-important assholes, because they're toxic and will ruin morale.

All the rest (beer or wine or non-drinker? Loves basketball? Plays an instrument?) is beside the point and usually just an excuse for various types of otherwise illegal discrimination. Hire someone who's capable of acting like a professional when in the office. Someone who can be courteous and communicates well. Once your company is past the size where you can all fit in a sedan at one time, you don't need to all be best friends.

Other things I've seen that fit that original concept you mention. Things you might, as a candidate, want to try and tease out in an interview if you wish to avoid them.

- Firefighting is valued more highly than avoiding fires. The way to move up or get noticed is to have been a hero during some unneeded crisis.

- The company has an excessive amount of "Kool Aid" culture, where they talk about work as if it were equivalent to family, versus some more reasonable premise.

- An unusual organizational style that may not work for you. Like perhaps the Zappos holacracy thing. Granted, that may work for some, but it could be a showstopper for others.

A simpler version: Can you fit into our micro-society?

I think a bit less about "can you fit into our society?" and more about "can you produce effectively given certain constraints and reward structures?"

Ask a question that has more than 1 right answer (and also more than 3 right answers). To be honest, I do the "cultural" fit while I do the "technical" interview.

How would you approach solving <insert some problem>? Dig into their solution for its technical merits, downsides, pitfalls, etc. But, more importantly, pay attention to how they react when they are challenged, whether they overcomplicate things or whether they hand-wave around real problems. Do they know when to say "it depends" or "I don't know"?

You can get a "right" answer and still "fail" the test. My feedback will basically be, "This person is smart and I can't justify saying 'no' but..."

The "cultural" question is "Do you want to work with this person?" So try working with them not at them.

Here's how to pass most startup cultural fit tests:

Avoid strong opinions even if you're asked. The interviewers themselves may be crapping on emacs, PHP, design patterns or whatever so you may be tempted to voice your own, but it doesn't go both ways. Don't get too comfortable.

You'll be offered coffee. Drink it. Don't refuse beer either. Fake a liking if need be. After work drinks are mission critical.

Make sure you're not too fat nor too old nor too Indian. If you're a woman, look your best and practice your natural makeup skills.

"What are your hobbies? / What do you like to do on your free time?" don't mean what you think they mean. "Spending time with my family" or "reading" are not valid answers. The only valid answers are the ones that imply you like working for free (Github, OSS, and the like.) Bonus points for consecutive green squares.

Don't talk badly about former colleagues. This is the biggest red flag.

I'm thinking (hoping) this comment is based in sarcasm. Leaving aside the overt racism and sexism, hiring someone who "passes" these ridiculous criteria seems counterproductive, as you will be hiring someone who either a) does not have viewpoints that are fresh or different from your own, or b) has them but will not share them for fear of reprisal for speaking out against the status quo.

I know this response is only semi-serious, but I'll say this anyway.

HR professionals that I respect have advised me that asking questions about hobbies or personal interests are to be avoided.

Correct. There are a bunch of reasons to avoid it but two very tangible reasons are:

1. It makes you susceptible to bias. Say a candidate reveals that they love volunteering at their local church group and it becomes evident that they hold strong religious beliefs; in some circumstances, if the interviewer holds contrary beliefs, it could unfairly affect their perspective of the candidate.

2. Along the same lines as the first example. If the candidate revealed during the interview that they were Muslim for example, and they were unsuccessful in getting the job, there is little preventing them from bringing a case against the company for discrimination. Unless you have absolutely rock solid evidence to prove that their faith had zero influence on the decision making process, it can actually be a very difficult position to defend.

I'm not sure where you're located, but the opposite is true in Europe.

Personal questions are used to gauge your interests and personality to see how well you might fit within the company or a specific team.

I'm a HR/Talent professional based in London and I can assure you that those questions should be avoided at all costs regardless of your geographic location.

I disagree with this. It's a harmless question during a non-tech interview, or at least I thought was.

What exactly do you mean by too Indian?

Since nobody else has, I'll step in here and stay please ignore this. If you encounter this attitude when you're interviewing somewhere, treat it as a big red flag to avoid working for them. You shouldn't contribute your skills and time to help make money for a company that accepts this attitude.

What do you mean by not too Indian?

Don't stink up the dining areas with your Indian food and then eat it with your hands whilst only hanging out with your Indian coworkers speaking in whatever Indian dialect you're speaking. That or wearing 7 gold rings and chains or have some weird image on your desktop of an 8 limbed elephant Goddess you venerate. Don't say "Yes" while bobbing your head left-to-right, that means the opposite to Westeners. Don't say things like "I will revert back" or "Please do the need for" in emails, it makes no sense. Don't have the kind of accent that people ask you to rather "send them an email" because they can't actually figure out what you're trying to say over a phone call because your Indian accent is too strong.

These are things I've heard other white dudes complain about at work.

Was there really no way to answer that without your own editorialization? Maybe without picking off a stereotype list? I'm pretty glad I don't where ever you work, because the "other white dudes" at your place sound dreadful, and I imagine you get along pretty well with them.

I don't know? I'm trying to be frank here. You can't really dance around these issues. I know this because I've sat in many hiring sessions and interviewed many people. By the time you've shook someone's hand and they've uttered their name it's already 50% made up in people's mind if they're gonna hire this person or not. Welcome to the shit show.

I'm just giving a heads up for some poor dudes that wanna "play the game" and make a good career. Or what is worse is the poor guys that post on HN about "I've been to 50 interviews, everyone thinks my resume is great but I'm not landing any jobs". The fit or fuck off attitude is still very much alive in the corporate world.

I could write a similar list for the typical white geek that dresses like Rainman or has autistic body language and wonders why he's not getting hired.

We make decisions about people within the first second of meeting them. Read here: https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/how-many-secon...

There is no way around this. Everyone does it.

You could be aware that you do that and counteract it in any way? For example I saw this and my reflex interpretation was that you were extremely dumb, but instead of just saying that I thought maybe they just haven't thought about using their conscious mind to affect their behavior.

Why? I provided an argument with a source. Also, I wasn't saying that those feelings were immutable; I was just stating the fact that we make somewhat-lasting impressions very quickly on first glance, and those impressions can take time to change.

You don't have to change your feelings you just need to be aware of them and change your behavior. The moment we become aware of our cognitive biases is the moment we gain the capacity to work against them. It's great that you identified a cognitive bias, but it's not enough to be aware of bias, you need to correct for it. This way your behavior lines up with how you see yourself, and who you want to be. You can correct for a bias you presently have, even if you haven't overcome it. For example I might be biased to say yes to every question, but equipped with this knowledge I can use my conscious mind to correct for this bias, even though I still have it!

As you behave against the bias this will slowly work to correct the biased expectations, because you will have new experience that contradicts previous assumptions.

"Cultural fit" is sometimes a code word for outright racism.

And even when it isn't, it means they're looking for somebody who they can get along with easily. Which means they're looking for somebody who could easily become friends with them.

And making friends with white guys is a lot easier if you're a "banana": yellow on the outside but white on the inside: if you like the same things the white guys do, if you have the same opinions that the white guys have, if you behave the same way they do, et cetera.

One thing I've noticed about tech companies is that they like to brag about how diverse they are.

"John over there is a ballroom dancer, Jack doesn't drink beer, Talia is a black girl, Jim dresses funny, ..."

So if you have one thing that distinguishes you from the other guys at work, that's actually a good thing. If the group is a bunch of hard drinkers that talk about sports all the time, it's possible to not drink or not care about sports as long as you don't make a big deal about it.

But if you have two things different, then you don't fit in. You're an Indian, you've already used your "difference card", so to fit in you have to be a hard-drinking sports lover or whatever the company culture is.

Don't look too much of a native from wherever you are if your average peer does not share your traits.

Make sure you don't mean "how do companies make sure they only hire people who are clones of their existing staff?"

The answer lies more in making your company somewhere where anyone can excel, then looking for people who show empathy in your interview process.

Here are some things we do: https://www.haplo-services.com/blog/2017/working-with-early-...

The post focuses on early stage developers, but I believe the principles stand at all levels.

Assuming you're asking about assessing cultural fit, we do a couple of semi-overt things.

First, we make sure that every interviewer, including initial contacts and phone screens, offers the candidate a chance to ask their own questions and I make it a point to state that "you're picking us just as much as we're picking you". From the questions the candidate asks, we get some insight into what's on their mind and they get their questions answered and can form a more informed opinion of us as well.

Second, we generally schedule an informal lunch in our cafeteria (we buy, of course) with the candidate and a 1-3 of our engineers, often from the team they're interviewing with but sometimes just other non-team peers. This is explicitly meant to be informal and similar-level peers, but you can't help sharing data about who we are, how we interact with each other and the candidate, and learning/teaching whether there's likely a good fit.

If you're asking about creating/enhancing cultural fit once hired, that's an ordinary leadership challenge.

I also had such a lunch on an on-site interview day and must say that I really liked it. Not only can the company assess your fit but you can also assess whether you like the company and your future colleagues.

Indeed, I've gone through a similar process and it was really nice for both sides. Although I believe that this should be done carefully, because when people get close and personal, they tend to "judge" others based on the personality, which is important, but not really what they are doing, instead they should focus on the cultural fit having in account the candidate's personality and other factors.

This is explicitly meant to be informal and similar-level peers, but you can't help sharing data about who we are, how we interact with each other and the candidate, and learning/teaching whether there's likely a good fit.

A formalized process of informality. Interesting.

You can't take all the context away; we just try to make it as low-pressure and "normal" a lunch as is possible, given the obvious context. (And yes, we've had candidates "fail" the lunch slot. I'm sure we've "failed" the lunch slot for some of the candidates who ended up turning us down. Those are usually beneficial "fails" IMO.)

It was just amusing to see such a formal engagement labeled as the opposite. It can be a good idea, beneficial for both parties, etc. But if a candidate can fail it, it's certainly not normal or informal.

For clarity, candidates fail the lunch slot not by chewing with their mouth open, keeping their pinky on their cup, or putting elbows on the table, but rather by being overtly bigoted, racist/sexist, or otherwise extraordinarily A-hole-ish. (I can only recall two instances in 14 years; perhaps I should have not mentioned it, but I'm an engineer at heart... :) )

How does that work out for people who eat only halal, kosher, vegan, etc.?

I'm not on the recruiting scheduling side, but we have a cafeteria that serves ~500 people every day and includes 5-6 different stations, including a salad bar. I suppose if someone had a really specific dietary requirement that the typical cafeteria couldn't meet, that they'd be accustomed to bringing their own food (or raising the concern ahead of time so recruiting coordination could accommodate them somehow).

I had a friend who was present in interviews at a hedge fund in London where the standard first question was 'where do you ski?'

When she quit, they asked her what it would take for her to stay. She asked for an equality policy and BOOM! A big cheque fell in her lap and they thanked her for her contribution.

I've been asked "do you ski?" quite a few times in my life, and it took me a while to realise that most of the time I was really being asked "are you a member of the same social class as me?"

That reminds me of the scene from LA Story with Steve Martin and Patrick Stewart. I get the feeling if any interview question sounds like "Where do you summer?", it's going to be trouble.

Dammit, never thought about this - but as the alps are only a 1h drive away, most of the people I grew up with did learn to ski at some point in their life. Alas, it's not London.

There are still some boys clubs on Wall Street, but it's starting to become a rarity.

I just went through the interview process for a management role at a company in which they stressed the importance of "cultural fit." I assumed this meant I would be evaluated for my ability to work within a startup vs the traditional large enterprise companies I had been working for over the last few years.

I was caught a bit off-guard when the interview pivoted towards inclusion and diversity. I stumbled through some questions which, in hindsight, were geared around determining if I was a "brogrammer". The questions were very open-ended like: "How do you deal with diversity?" and "How do you accommodate other's working styles?"

Speaking with HR after the interview the company their definition of "cultural fit" was much broader than just work or programming style. The company is extremely interested in building a talent pool that is diverse in all ways (age, gender, ethnicity, etc...) and viewed the engineering practices as something that can be taught.

Their belief, if you invest in good people who like their jobs then they will build good products. And if those products are good then the company will make money.

> "How do you deal with diversity?" and "How do you accommodate other's working styles?"

I don't understand these kind of questions, culture shouldn't play a role as long as core values are shared (like honesty, empathy, humility...) The rest should be irrelevant in the workplace

> I don't understand these kind of questions, culture shouldn't play a role as long as core values are shared (like honesty, empathy, humility...)

It's important to have non-toxic and morally good employees, but if you start forcing a "core value" system on subjective morality you're going to throw a wrench into the cogs.

Shared core values are better for goals and brand identity. Company culture is more leading by example, than meticulously choosing what is honest and empathetic and humble.


For me, it's always been just to make sure the person isn't toxic to other employees

From some other comments I skimmed: I think it's a bonus if you have opinions on software. I want to hire people that challenge the team to grow and challenge me to grow with their differing opinions. It is very important as to how that opinion is conveyed though.

"Corporate culture" is weird.

In my experience it's useful for teams to share some "culture" -- some shared expectations so not everything has to be communicated explicitly.

On the other hand, it's kind of useful that different teams have different cultures and some between-teams attrition goes on in meetings related to larger projects. Think "marketers versus engineers". It's important that these mutually contradicting views clash!

Also: I've had the bad experience of the buddy-chuminess of team culture gradually drift into flirting and then into unsustainable sexual tension, complete with big fight and months of really bad communication. But note this: we've been able to work through all that storm, and now we're on pretty good speaking and collaboration terms. This only worked because we were cogs in a seven-ish-cog-machine and the machine could grind on with insufficient lubrication between two cogs. (This is a bad analogy because it seems that the more cogs the better, but there's a sweet spot...)

I love this approch from https://careers.bytemark.co.uk/process

"There's no "cultural fit" requirement. If you have a skill we like and you can learn and work with a team, you'll get on fine here. You'll be our company culture, and we welcome your contribution."

I think it's important to first know which traits you deem to be 'culturally fit'.

Before coming up with a solution, the first step should always be defining the problem.

This could be worth running a workshop with the people you know are good cultural fits to come up with this trait-list.

In an interview (real-world application), similar to Google's layover test, I would suggest randomly picking people in the office to have an informal (but guided) chat around interests and everything after the fact of the candidate being competent enough to actually do the work.

As soon as that meeting concludes, send a form to all employees in that interview to rate against the traits you've defined.

Come up with a score tactic, if you want, and anything above, let's say 85%, is a fit.

Side note: You can be specific in your choice of words in the job posting to make it more likely that you attract the right type of people.

George Bradt offers a good framework for defining & understanding company culture > http://www.primegenesis.com/blog/2010/12/b-r-a-v-e-framework...

You'll want the interview team to assess the candidate with that criteria mind. Probe important areas, such as learning-style, interpersonal communication, and decision-making.

Ultimately, you're trying to answer the question "Can we live with this person?"

We mostly focus on _work_ culture. Is the developer a move fast and break things dev, but your culture is more of a move slow and do it right? Do they focus more, less, or the same as other employees on tooling. Are they about always pushing the latest greatest, or are they more focused on stability, and which do you need. Do they have a big problem with collared shirts? Polos? are those in some way a business need for you? Do they have a big need for work from home but your workplace doesn't presently provide that?

'Cultural fit' is quite hard to define - sadly the phrase has a lot of negative connotations as too many people have used it to filter for people who 'look/act/think like me' or to make sure the person will regularly attend company drinks otherwise be ostracised (one example).

A more positive way to think of it could be to search for people who work well as a team, treat others fairly regardless of their role, like/employ transparency and so on.

Just had an aha moment, where I realized that I might have been using "cultural fit" as a proxy for "work ethic".

Then again I don't think we've ever used the exact term "cultural fit" in my team.

Ask questions that go to socioeconomic background. 5 decades of sociology research have shown that skin color is a fair proxy for this. College rankings work too.

Newsworthy culture fit problems at e.g. uber could have been solved out of the gate by not hiring those pesky women. They bring the majority of culture-fit litigation.

Sometimes you can't tell if someone is not biologically male just by looking, so consider also supporting anti-trans legislation in your municipality.

/s, I presume?

You presume wrong.

"consider also supporting anti-trans legislation in your municipality"

Not necessary to distract the company with politics. In this case you should be able to tease out gender with some exploratory locker-room talk.

Lunches or drinks (if your company is into that). No work talk. Exactly like a date or a catchup with a friend.

"Cultural fit" should be an illegal form of discrimination.

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