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Ensure a Positive Candidate Experience When Hiring Contingent Talent Remotely

As digitization, coupled with the global pandemic, propels contingent hiring online and with more individuals relying on employer reviewer sites to evaluate businesses, delivering a positive[...]

March 10, 2021

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How To Interview For Cultural Fit

How to Interview for Cultural Fit

Zombie survival as an HR strategy? Sort of.

“The Walking Dead,” AMC’s award-winning zombie survival series, just wrapped up its fifth season. According to ratings, it’s the most-watched show in cable television history. The franchise has become so popular, compelling and respected that HR leaders are now citing it to illustrate the dynamics of successful teams. And there’s an interesting point to be made there. The premise of the show really has little to do with zombies -- it’s about people. How they overcome adversity, band together and cooperate to attain mutual goals. Yet the aspect of the story that staffing experts have focused on is a three-question test used by the protagonists to vet potential members of their group:

  • How many walkers have you killed?
  • How many people have you killed?
  • Why?

These questions, with some obvious revisions, are being touted by staffing and recruiting professionals as a sort of freshly exhumed Holy Grail for determining cultural fit. And they have merit, because what they’re measuring is compatibility. Yet it’s not getting the answers right that matters -- it’s about asking the right questions.

Compatibility and culture

Sheriff Rick Grimes’ three questions aren’t testing skills, likeability or attitudes that mirror those of the interviewers; they’re measuring compatibility and integrity. The survivors in “The Walking Dead” are diverse. They possess different skills, different beliefs, different values and individual flaws. They are not assembled because they are the same. They work well together because each has something to contribute and because they are compatible. What Grimes wants to know of prospective candidates is simply this: will the stragglers joining the troop help ensure its safety and wellbeing? In terms of workplace culture, hiring managers and recruiters are seeking the same from applicants.

When interviewing for cultural fit, the best approach is to separate questions related to skills from those related to compatibility. Savvy recruiters have already vetted the abilities, experience and qualifications of the candidates they’re presenting. Rehashing that in an interview is somewhat inefficient. A better technique, as Elon Musk asserts, is to pose pointed, situational questions: “When I interview someone, I ask them tell me about the problems they worked on and how they solved them. If someone was really the person that solved it, they’ll be able to answer on multiple levels. They’ll be able to get down to brass tacks. And if they weren’t, they’ll get stuck. And then you go, ‘okay, this person is not really the one who solved it.’ Anyone who struggles hard on the problem gets it.”

Testing for cultural fit, however, requires strategic questions that elicit responses which speak to compatibility.

Questions to avoid

There are many interview questions that are no longer effective, and perhaps never were, yet keep being asked. Some, such as those about age or marital status, are just plain illegal. Others, experts say, persist because they’re considered standard. To gauge compatibility and cultural fit, avoid asking questions that attempt to locate candidates “just like you,” lead the candidate’s replies, focus on negative traits, or are clever for the sake of being clever. Some staffing leaders have suggested asking questions you can anticipate the answers to. This also creates a similar bias, rife with limitations.

To thrive, companies must have diverse talent from different backgrounds, perspectives and experiences. When everyone is alike, new thinking and fresh innovations will be stifled. 

  • What is your greatest strength? This seems innocent enough, yet reveals very little. Interviewees are well versed in providing a variety of acceptable answers. They merely fashion their responses to fit the situation. If the company is looking for a strong leader, the candidate declares mentoring and motivating a team as his greatest asset. If the organization needs technical skills, the candidate stresses her expertise in software engineering.
  • What is your greatest weakness? What rational person will honestly answer this question? It seems inappropriate, disingenuous and even a bit antagonistic. A lot of perfect candidates turn away from jobs because of questions like this -- questions that lead them to believe the company is negative, paranoid or looking for problems.
  • Tell me about your resume. The impression the interviewer has just created is that he or she hasn’t read your resume. Candidates who feel that the hiring manager or recruiter showed no interest in them are likely to see the organization’s culture as impersonal, apathetic and uninterested in morale.
  • What are you bad at? Repairing ballast tanks on nuclear submarines. Measuring the transmutation of charged particles in the Van Allen radiation belt. Bull riding for the full eight seconds. Going without water for more than 100 hours in normal climate conditions. Unless the role is somehow related to any of these situations, which is unlikely, you can expect answers from candidates as meaningful as these.
  • Give an example of conflict and how you resolved it. Yes, this question has become a mainstay, and some HR professionals feverishly defend it. However, because we’re focusing on culture, consider the impression it makes on prospective employees: your organization experiences a lot of conflict that the candidate will need to deal with; this is an unpleasant group of people; your customers are always angry with you. In the end, it’s a big turn off and candidates will usually provide some generic narrative you’ve heard a million times before.
  • What are you better at than anyone else? Perhaps a better way to position the question is, “Of what accomplishments are you most proud?”

The right questions to ask

There are vital members of “The Walking Dead” group who have never slain a zombie. There are those who’ve put down an unsettling number of people. The most important question Rick asks is “why?” This reveals the true purpose of the test: to gain an understanding of the candidate’s personality with an open mind, determine his or her integrity, and figure out if the person is disruptive or conducive. Ultimately, organizations must decide the right questions -- those best suited to their environments and cultures. Here are a few that might steer you in the right direction.

  • What are the characteristics exhibited by the best boss you’ve ever had -- or wished that you have had?
  • What are the positive aspects of your current job and work environment, or the last position you held before coming to this interview?
  • What are three to five expectations you have of senior leaders in a successful and highly engaged organization?
  • When you work with a team, describe the role you are most likely to play on the team.
  • Tell us about an occasion when you delighted a customer, either an internal or an external customer.
  • Describe a situation when you had to work alone and then when you had to work on a team? How did you accomplish your tasks in each situation? Which was easier? Why?

Matching candidates to business cultures is an essential technique in modern hiring models. And it requires thoughtful introspection, examination and formulating questions that will enlighten candidates, hiring managers and recruiters in the process. Otherwise, you could end up with answers that mean nothing in context. In Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” a computer called Deep Thought exemplifies this conundrum.

Asked to provide the meaning of life, the universe and everything, Deep Thought delivers this response after seven million years of calculation: “Forty-two. I checked it very thoroughly, and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”

Casey Enstrom
Casey Enstrom
Casey is one of the staffing industry’s household names, specializing in sales and operations leadership. He brings extensive knowledge of business development and sales strategies, predictive analytics, leadership, and human capital solutions. Prior to Crowdstaffing, Casey served as the Vice President of Technical Sales, North America, for a Fortune 1000 staffing firm.
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