What does it mean for a hiring candidate to be a good fit?
We often lean on an unfortunate proxy answer: “Is this candidate like the hiring manager?“
We then gravitate toward candidates who look, sound, think, and act like the folks already in power. We can sweep a lot of bias under the rug of “culture fit.” The result: a homogeneous office that negatively impacts employee happiness and the company bottom line.
But fit, the idea, divorced from unfortunate proxies, has immense value in the employee/employer selection process. A qualified candidate might enjoy themselves more and have more impact at another company. Or, they could be the perfect fit for this one.
So how can we better articulate what we mean by “fit” to find the candidates that will nurture and accelerate our work?
This question of has some nuance. We’ll go over four important pieces.
In my experience, teams that want to articulate their terms for “fit” tend to start with values. For that reason, of the four items we’ll talk about today, values tends to be the easiest one for teams to get their heads around.
This one starts with a discussion among the members of the current team: What are our important values? Are they technical rigor, asking questions, communication? Is inclusion one of our values? Is commitment to the company goals, at the cost of personal lives, one of our team’s values? It’s important to be explicit and honest in this step. If we realize in this step that our team values something that we do not want to value, we can always come up with a plan to change the way we work so that we no longer have to value that thing.
Now that we have our values, does this candidate share them? We can ask them, but we must keep in mind that an interview candidate will say what they think will get them an offer. So have their actions demonstrated their values, separately from what they have said? We talked about interviewing and values a little bit in this post.
2. Existing Experience vs. Leveling Up
What can our team level someone up at, and what can it not? If we can’t level someone up at something, our position is not attractive to people who want to grow.
This is the biggest mistake I see companies make. They’re looking for the “best and brightest” in categories where they have nothing to offer those people from a growth, support, or mentorship perspective. Then those people don’t apply/accept positions and the company complains about how hiring is taking so long. In tech this is constant. Managers who just got promoted after 3 years of coding can’t figure out why the next Margaret Hamilton doesn’t want to work for them.
It’s OK to admit that we are not in a position to level someone up at something. We just have to recognize how that impacts who we can, or who we must, hire into new roles. If we have a deep tech team with a long and varied track record and a lot of motivation to nurture the growth of others, then we’re in a position to field some extremely motivated candidates. If we don’t have that, we need to be OK with candidates who aren’t looking for that, which means they might not be as growth-minded as we think we want.
Our resources to level someone up don’t just inform the perfect candidate’s goals. They also inform the minimum level of experience we can accept on that axis. For example, I don’t feel like training people on inclusion literacy anymore. I have done it for years and I am tired. So I look for programmers who already have this, the same way places look for programmers that already have programming skills.
If we cannot find a candidate that has the skill set we need, can they grow on that axis to prepare for their arrival? I once had a job where I was asked to bone up on TDD before my first day. The company provided specific feedback and resources for me. I was in a privileged position of having the time and energy to do that, uncompensated, before I started. So this is not a perfect solution. That said, I think there can be value in providing a candidate with feedback on their growth areas, as noted in the interview, even before or as we extend an offer. This helps a candidate understand their perception and get a head start on their growth plan.
3. Culture Add
This one gets a fair amount of air time already. Erika Cober from Willowtree describes it succinctly:
Instead of hiring to fit an existing mold, what are some qualities that could break the mold? Look around your team—who’s missing? What perspectives and ideas could they bring?
Here’s a rule of thumb we can use to figure out who is missing: what things besides our values does everybody in our leadership team agree on? Our team is vulnerable to groupthink on those things. That’s a weakness. So we look for a candidate who will challenge decisions on that thing. We are looking for people who will disagree with us and will see evidence that we cannot see.
That exact advantage is one of the reasons that diversity in decision-making teams is so important. An all-white team has no experience on which to base assumptions about how black customers will experience their product. That has consequences. An all-male team has no experience on which to base assumptions about how women will use their product. That has consequences. An all-cishet team has no experience on which to base assumptions about how queer and trans people will use their product. That has consequences.
We want to add people to the room who will see the opportunities, and catch the mistakes, that we don’t see and we don’t catch right now. And then when we hire them and they do that, we have to listen to them.
4. What They are Looking For
Do we have what this candidate is looking for in their next job?
If we don’t, even if we love them and they have everything we want, we risk losing them once we bring them on and they realize we don’t have the goods.
If that happens—say, if they leave within a year of their hiring date—that’s $70k (bare minimum) in recruiting and hiring costs down the drain. So it’s important to consider, not just for team morale, but also for our bottom line. We could be missing out by making this person an offer without addressing our own shortcomings relative to their goals.
Suppose we ask them “What are you looking for in your next position” and they say “upward mobility.” But we have no growth framework as a company for upskilling or promoting people. We have three options for addressing this shortcoming:
- Tell the candidate that we do not have a growth framework. Allow the candidate to reject our offer or choose to accept our offer with the knowledge that we cannot give them what they are looking for.
- Prioritize building a growth framework so this candidate can have the career they want here. Not that we theoretically “should” have one, but rather “This is what we need for a minimum viable interim growth framework, and here is what we will do to have that ready by this candidate’s first 30 days here.”
- Some combination of 1 and 2.
When we hire for fit without thinking about what a fit means to us, we use an unfortunate proxy: similarity to hiring managers. The result: homogeneous teams, with poor results for employee experience and the bottom line. But fit, divorced from that poor proxy, is still a valuable consideration. So how do we articulate what it means to fit at this company?
We can look at it by considering four different questions:
- What are our values, and does this candidate share those?
- What can we help a candidate learn, and what must they already know to do well here?
- What perspective can they add that our team is currently missing, and how can we make sure we listen when they add that perspective in a meeting?
- What are they looking for, and do we have it or can we develop it?
These questions will help us build a nuanced and helpful picture of how a candidate might interact with our existing team. That gives us an opportunity to find the people who fill in our missing pieces.
If you liked reading about culture fit, you might also like:
How to Socialize Big Changes at Work (this is a 3 part series)