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May 21, 2012
Cultural Alignment in Your Company
 
Have you ever interviewed an employee who you knew in your gut was not going to be a good fit, but you hired them anyway?  Maybe they had the right skills or experience and you figured you could overlook their lack of cultural fit. Or maybe you thought you could get them to change. Most of us have made this mistake at some point in our careers and we’ve lived to regret it. As simple as it sounds, developing cultural alignment starts with choosing the right players.
 
Starting With the Right Raw Material
Most people come to the workplace with their value system largely already formed. The values they believe in come from their family, their upbringing, and their previous experiences. Rarely are we going to change these beliefs. Instead, we have to find people who already share the values and beliefs we want to promote in our organizations.
 
I always counsel employers to be uncompromising in their search for people who are a good cultural fit. When I say this, I mean that we must never hire someone we don’t believe is already a good fit. To be sure, we don’t guess right 100% of the time in recruiting. However, there’s a big difference between making a mistake in judgment and a mistake in commitment. Sometimes we misjudge a recruit’s value system or miss out on signs we might have picked up. When this happens, we correct the mistake (this typically includes a termination) and we try again. This is entirely different, though, from hiring someone we already recognize is not going to be a good fit.
 
Determining Cultural Fit
How can you determine a good fit? The best way is to include values-based questions in your interview process. It’s surprising to me how few companies actually do this. When I ask employers this question in seminars I conduct, I typically find that less than 25% of them interview for cultural fit. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that cultural fit be the only, or even the primary, requirement. Finding people who have the requisite talent, skills, and experience for our position is essential. It’s just that it’s not enough. They must also be the right cultural fit.
 
The key is to take each of the values that are most important to your organization and then to develop a series of interview questions designed to uncover a candidate’s relationship to that value. For example, if high touch customer service were one of your values, you might ask a candidate to share a story of an incident in which they either provided or received fabulous customer service. If they can’t think of one or they tell it in a dispassionate way, them may not “get” customer service. However, if they become all animated and their face lights up as they tell a great story, then they’re likely to be your kind of person.
 
It’s important to be sure that the questions you ask are behaviorally oriented rather than theoretical. Rather than asking if they think integrity is important, it’s better to ask them for a story in which they had to earn someone’s trust. The stories people tell, and the way in which they tell them, reveal much about what’s important to them.
 
Beyond the interview itself, another way to assess cultural fit is to have a candidate spend time, perhaps even over lunch, with some of your current staff. Ask your staff whether or not they feel the person is a good fit and why. If you have a strong culture, your people will typically be pretty protective of it and will want to ensure that you bring in the right people.
 
Building Momentum
As you get more and more rigorous about hiring only people who are a good cultural fit, those from your current staff who aren’t aligned with your values will begin to stick out in a more obvious way. They’ll often leave on their own accord, even if they do so begrudgingly. As this happens and you continue to bring in the right people, the tenor of your culture becomes stronger and stronger. New people pick up on this, they fall in line with the prevailing behaviors, and the culture gets further reinforced.
 
Here’s the most important thing to understand about culture change: You rarely change an organization’s culture by getting their people to behave differently. Rather, you change the culture by hiring the right people, getting rid of the wrong people, and then reinforcing the values you want to promote. Next month, we’ll explore a number of ways to effectively reinforce your values.

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David Friedman is the former President of RSI, an award-winning employee benefits brokerage and consulting firm in the Philadelphia area. The author of Fundamentally Different:  building a culture of success through organizational values, Friedman is a sought-after consultant, guest speaker and seminar leader on organizational culture, leadership, and values. 
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