We Need to Redefine “Culture Fit”

Written by Laura Roeder

On February 2, 2016

Hiring would be a lot easier if it were just a matter of finding someone with skills – but it isn’t.

It’s also a matter of finding someone who fits – someone who’s a good match for your business and your team not only because they have talent, but because you’re fundamentally compatible.

But when you’re talking about a real, live person, determining fit isn’t necessarily as simple as it is with a glove, or a Speedo – it might take you more than a few seconds to feel out whether they’re right for you. (Or if they’re bunching up in uncomfortable places.)

That’s where the culture fit interview comes in.

Now, the idea of interviewing specifically for culture fit elicits a pretty wide variety of opinions.

(Spoiler alert: It isn’t always a popular idea.)

It can also help you dodge a serious bullet and avoid hiring someone who’s likely to clash with your team and your working style, though – which is exactly why culture fit should be on your mind from the moment you first write a job listing.

But if you’re going to effectively interview for culture fit, there’s one big thing you need to know:

What “culture fit” is (and isn’t)

If we’re going to be honest, “culture fit” is a pretty terrible name.

It invites a lot of negative interpretations – including interpretations that encourage awful hiring practices. (Not to mention illegal ones.)

You could interpret it as, “only hire people just like yourself and the rest of your team.” Or, historically, “you have carte blanche to reject anyone against whom you have an inherent bias.”

(Which is especially bad when you consider the prevalence of inherent biases we don’t even realize we have.)

Implicit bias is everywhere. Courtesy Washington Post | Project Implicit


Frankly, it’s all too often the means by which marginalized groups of people continue to have doors closed in their faces, while those shutting them out do so with impunity.

This is gross.

If this is the definition you know, then it’s time to redefine what exactly culture fit means.

Culture fit is something you can interview for specifically – more on that later – but it’s also something you should look for from the beginning.

Because every time you interview someone, you’re already assessing their culture fit – you just don’t realize it because it happens subconsciously, and it usually manifests as feelings or instincts.

Feelings like:

  • “I just get a good vibe from them.”
  • “They come across as a know-it-all.”
  • “I like their attitude.”
  • “Something about them seemed weird.”

When you make hiring for culture fit an explicit part of your process, though, you force yourself to unpack where those feelings come from, and what role – if any – they should play in your decision.

Hiring for culture fit means considering how someone will fit into your organization, not just how a person made you feel. This means reverse-engineering your feelings, understanding where they came from, and deciding whether or not those reasons are ultimately a positive or a negative for your business.

What specifically did a job candidate do or say to elicit your feelings about them? Get introspective. Don’t be afraid to overanalyze. Ask yourself “why” as much as you can.

Don't just ask yourself what you feel about a potential hire - ask yourself why you feel it. Click to Tweet

For example, you might get a good vibe from a candidate because they’re enthusiastic, communicative, and optimistic – all things that would make them a good fit for your team, probably!

On the other hand, you might find that you get a good vibe from a candidate because you went to the same school, or they have a particularly symmetrical face, or you both have Michael Bublé back tattoos. Those aren’t bad things, but they don’t necessarily make someone better for the position you’re trying to fill.

That’s because culture fit is a matter of making sure that a talented person is also a good match for reasons related directly to your business.

Here are a few of the questions we try to answer when we assess for culture fit (taken directly from our wiki):

  • Is this person a strong communicator?
  • Do they seem like they’ll succeed in a remote work environment?
  • Will this person show the team something new and interesting?
  • Are they willing and able to see situations from multiple points of view?
  • Do they embody our company values of kindness and ownership?

Answering questions like these helps us understand whether someone’s working style is compatible with ours, and for reasons related to both their abilities and how they put those abilities to use.

(A useful way to think of this is to ask “Why wouldn’t they be good for our company,” instead of just “Why would they be good for our company.”)

Identifying whether someone’s a good fit for your business happens at every stage of the hiring process – but it’s also something you can take the time to look for deliberately.

How to interview for culture fit

When you were in school, you probably had teachers you loved and teachers you hated – not just because of the classes they taught, but because the way they taught and the way you learned were or were not compatible.

Hiring for culture fit follows the same principle – the idea that someone’s compatibility with your team is a matter of how they do something, not just what they do.

A good way to make sure someone is compatible with your company because of talents that aren’t on their resume?

Look for those talents!

When you want to understand someone’s working style, or their perspective, or the way they communicate, it helps to not be distracted by focusing only on their technical prowess – and that means getting help from someone else.

We conduct a specific culture fit interview for every new hire – because when you bring someone new into your business, you’re not the only person they’ll ever interact with.

(And in some cases, they’ll interact with certain types of people much differently than they would with others.)

That’s why our culture fit interview is always conducted by people outside the applicant’s department – people whose goal is to suss out that person’s strengths and weaknesses as a well-rounded member of a team, not just as a bullet list of experiences.

Our team conducting a culture fit interview. (He got hired, too. Hi, Mike!)

Our team conducting a culture fit interview. (He got hired, too. Hi, Mike!)

When someone interviews for a job in development, for example, the head of that department can assess their coding skills – but someone without a dev background will be able to understand how that applicant communicates with people outside their department. (Even talented people can create a toxic work environment.)

When an applicant isn’t concerned with impressing their interviewer with their technical skills – and when the interviewer isn’t asking about those skills directly – the conversation can focus more on their working style, and how that style does or doesn’t fit with your own.

What are this person’s priorities? What do they love about what they do, and what frustrates them? Is the way they operate compatible with the way YOU operate?

You can get to the heart of these issues by asking questions like:

  • In your current role, what do you feel is your biggest waste of time, and why?
  • Tell me about a time you received feedback about your work that was difficult to hear. How did you react? Did you change anything as a result?
  • What are some of the things you’ve done in your current role that you’re proudest of?
  • Think of a time your team had to adapt to a big unforeseen change. Where did your team struggle? Where did you struggle? How did you adjust?

(Hint: Try some our favorite follow-up questions – “Why did you make that decision” and “What would you have done differently?”)

Questions like these help you understand someone in terms of how they confront problems, what sorts of challenges they like the most, what excites them, and how they envision their role in a team.

And remember –

Their answers can be a bad fit for you without being objectively bad.

You might find that someone who would be working with people outside their own department isn’t able to effectively explain things to someone without their own background.

Or that they prefer more (or less) oversight than is typical in your business.

Or you might find that they have talents and experiences as a team member that make them an ideal fit for business – talents and experiences they haven’t yet had a chance to talk about!

Ultimately, this interview is there to give someone more opportunities to show what makes them an asset – not to set them up with “gotcha” moments, or to allow you to judge them based on aspects of their personality irrelevant to the position. It allows someone to show you who they are – not just what they do.

Redefining “culture fit”

The idea of interviewing specifically for culture fit is admittedly a tricky one. There are those who embrace a slippery definition of it, and consequently, those who bristle at the idea of doing it at all.

In the end, though, you’re already interviewing for culture fit – consciously or not. Recognizing that, and embracing it by making it an explicit part of your process, won’t just make the hiring process less fraught for you – it can make it easier for everyone you interview to show their best self, too.

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