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The art of asking the right questions to ensure culture fit

As a business consultant, I’m rarely surprised to discover that a culture issue is the root of a business or personnel problem. I am continually surprised, however, to see businesses fail to learn from their hiring and/or communication mistakes and repeat the process over and over.

Culture is crucial to success in any business, large or small, privately or publicly held. Yet too few business leaders concentrate on culture fit during the hiring process. Sure, they may talk about the company culture to the prospective employee, but it usually ends there. It’s only later when both the employer and employee realize they’re not a good fit – and the damage has been done.

Employee Turnover Is Costly

Employee turnover is incredibly costly. According to a study from the Center for American Progress, the average cost to replace an employee ranges from 16% of salary for lower paying jobs, all the way up to an astonishing 213% of salary for a CEO making $100,000 (Source: PeopleKeep). That’s a considerable mistake, and one most businesses can hardly afford to make.

The Right Questions for the Interview Process

The problem, in my professional estimation, is that employers are asking the wrong questions during the interview process. It’s natural to focus on technical ability during an interview as the candidate’s experience, skillset and education level are all important factors. However, they shouldn’t be the only factors considered in hiring. For example, the most technically-proficient candidate can simultaneously be the worst culture fit, dooming the relationship from the start. Asking culture-oriented questions often means asking more personal questions. And there’s an understandable uneasiness to delve into that realm. Failure to do so, though, will cost you far more than mild embarrassment.

When interviewing candidates to join your team, consider the following:

Know what you’re looking for

If you’re a business leader, you know your culture. But do you know what type of person will thrive in that culture, and what type of person won’t? Talking about your company culture is easy. Identifying the personality traits you’re looking for is harder – but imperative to finding the right fit.

Take some time to write down the types of personality traits that you desire in an employee before the interview process begins, then develop a series of questions designed to determine whether the candidate possesses those traits. If your company culture is rooted in consistent and honest feedback, ask questions designed to determine how the candidate reacts to criticism.

Ex. “Tell me about a time you received negative feedback from a superior. How did you react?”

Get personal – but not too personal

Too often, interviewers are so concerned with offending people that they fail to ask questions that provide real insights into a candidate’s personality. That fear, however, is mostly unfounded. Common sense will tell you what not to ask – sexual or political orientation, age, Red Sox or Yankees – questions that have no bearing on the candidate’s ability to do the job. Instead, ask open-ended questions focused on the candidate’s feelings. Give the candidate a chance to open up on how they feel about certain subjects that are important to your company culture.

Ex. “How do you prioritize your time when faced with simultaneous deadlines? How important is work-life balance?”

Create synergy

Getting people to open up requires a certain level of comfort for both parties. Get to know a little bit about the candidate personally before you follow up with situational questions. Ask about their family, hobbies or favorite restaurant – and share a little about yourself in the process. This will help put both parties at ease, and create a synergistic environment that breeds comfort, and will help you get to know the candidate on a deeper level. You may learn something you otherwise wouldn’t have – and avoid costly mistakes later.

Improve your emotional intelligence

Being a successful interviewer requires emotional intelligence. Learn to read people’s body language – it can tell you a lot about their level of comfort with a certain line of questioning. Strike the right tone and the right sequencing. Don’t push people too hard – instead, try to get on the same emotional wavelength. Let the atmosphere guide the conversation, not the other way around. And don’t be afraid of silence. Learn to view a pause in the conversation as an invitation for the candidate to share more – or as an opportunity to steer the conversation in a direction that will make the candidate more comfortable.

Culture Matters

Culture matters. Finding the right culture fit for your business means learning how to identify it – and learning to ask for it. Don’t be afraid to ask the right questions. Failing to do so will cost your business in the long run.

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