Articles about the importance – and dangers – of focusing on cultural fit during the recruiting and hiring process are everywhere these days. Type the phrase into any search engine and you’ll see: there is lots of buzz when it comes to discussing company culture and the extent to which job candidates should gel with this perceived set of employer values and vibe.
And while countless bigwigs and small fries in the space have their opinions about the matter, Weirdly Founder and CEO Dale Clareburt might be the expert of all experts when it comes to this hot topic. Her four-year-old company has created recruitment software that uses customizable quizzes to rank candidates against employers’ ideal cultural ‘fit,’ making hiring people that align with your culture and brand values easier than ever before. What’s more, similar quizzes give candidates a taste of a company’s culture before they’ve even applied, which in the end save companies time and money in the hiring process.
We sat down with Dale to get some of her thoughts on everything from useless interview questions to how she defines ‘cultural fit’ to how she’d advise Uber as it recovers from its recent shakeup.
Weirdly was founded in 2014. What were you seeing at that time that made you realize there needed to be a new approach to company culture?
I used to be in traditional recruitment – I actually still have my own recruitment agency – and I was speaking to my customers a lot. A few of them asked me why I could recruit better than they could and so I reflected on that. I have 20 years of experience so, of course, I’m better, but the main thing I realized was that they were asking the wrong questions.
The thing with recruiters is that we are very good at understanding what people aren’t saying and probing as opposed to just taking a job order and interviewing people. My customers were bringing the wrong people in, and it was having a huge impact on their businesses. I had one CEO tell me that hiring the wrong people was like a poison and that they’d rather bring in a worker who didn’t have all of the necessary skills and experience but who was 100% aligned with their company’s purpose and values and direction than the other way around.
He also said to me, ‘If you create a tool that will help solve that problem, I will buy it.’ I kept hearing the same story over and over again, mostly from smaller organizations, and so that’s when we started brainstorming how to ask the right questions. It turns out that asking the right questions gets you straight to the root of who a candidate really is and also to the root of the organization. I concentrate on matching people to companies first and jobs second.
What’s the significance of the name ‘Weirdly’ as it relates to cultural fit?
When we were building the tool, we were building it without a name. We were calling it ‘the cultural fit tool,’ which wasn’t very catchy. It took us four months to come up with a name, but then the name came about very naturally. We were trying to educate the market about what we were doing and this new product. In doing so, we’d ask, “What are the weird commonalities amongst your staff and team that are not skills and experience?” It’s another question where when asked you see people sort of stop and think, “Oh!” It makes them stop and think how they feel about their organization and it would spark all of these different ideas.
Another reason we chose it is that the word ‘weird’ in New Zealand is another word for unique. All organizations are unique in some way, and all individuals have a uniqueness about them, too. Weirdly is about matching those. The key lies in the ‘why’ not in the ‘what’. Why do you want to work for this organization, why do you get out of bed in the morning, why does this organization appeal to you? I always believe, again, that people should be choosing companies first and jobs second. There’s a time and a place for finding out whether someone has the exact skills and experience to do a job; finding out if someone is aligned with the culture is more important to us.
How did Weirdly formulate questionnaires that get to the heart of cultural fit?
What I would do when I went into an organization is to play a game with the team to find out about their brand. I would ask them, “If you were a party, what would the party look like?” That’s when you start to find out the essence of a business and what their values are and the way that they do things.
So, let’s take two hypothetical organizations and explain how they are different. Say we are working with an IT consulting company and with a tourism organization. The tourism company might say that the transportation to the party would be a party bus where everyone rides together, whereas the IT organization might say that everyone would arrive at the party in their own cars. That tells me a lot about how a company operates.
Next we might talk about the party itself. The tourism organization may picture being at a beach with live music and playing games and drinking beer out of a bottle. The other company might imagine their party would at a private wine bar where everyone is smoking cigars. That sounds very physical, but what that tells me is that one organization is more relaxed and fun while the other is a bit more cautious and formal. Neither is wrong; they just think about things differently. When you ask organizations these questions, you should see their faces light up because they start to see how they identify and how they see themselves. Most people don’t ask these questions; they just want to know about the job.
Let’s talk about interviewing candidates for cultural fit. What’s the least valuable question recruiters and hiring managers are asking candidates during job interviews?
‘What are your strengths and weaknesses?’ The question is hard to answer, and it doesn’t tell you anything about whether they are a cultural fit. Besides, when you ask someone that question, the response is always, ‘I work too hard.’ They want to respond by giving an example of a weakness that is actually a positive. Asking a candidate what they can personally improve upon is a little bit better because then you are assessing whether a person is motivated to grow. No one is ever going to answer that question with, “I’m not good at turning up at work on time.” It puts people on the spot, and you never get the answer that you want.
What can a recruiter ask then that gets to the heart of it without allowing a self-congratulatory answer?
I usually ask what the candidate’s references will tell me about them. Or, I’ll ask, ‘When I ask your reference for this job what your strengths are, what are they going to say?’ Or, ‘If I ask your reference what areas you need to improve upon, what are they going to say?’ When you ask a candidate what someone else’s opinion of them is, the answer is usually much different than when you ask what their opinion is of themselves.
What do you glean from that question?
Honesty. The idea is that if the candidate does well in the interview, this reference is going to get a phone call. So, they are going to want to make sure that that the responses are going to align. It also helps them to think back to what it was like when they were working for an organization. I also like to ask them what was the best organization they’ve ever worked for and why. It helps to find out how much they aligned with the organization because that’s what I’m trying to get at. It also helps me get into the details of the companies that they didn’t like working for and helps me find out what about those organizations they didn’t like. It helps me to match them with the right organization.
Some critics say that placing too much emphasis on cultural fit can create a homogenous environment that’s dangerous to workplace diversity. How do you respond to that?
The thing that’s challenging about that idea is that ‘culture’ is the word that we all use, but people’s interpretations of that word vary. Why I believe is that culture isn’t what you look like; it’s not physical. It’s why you do what you do. It’s about your purpose and your direction; it’s not about how you think. Five people can believe in the same thing, but they can think about it in five different ways. As an organization, you can state your objective, but how person one and person two get there may be completely different. So, when people are concerned that emphasizing cultural fit means that everyone in the organization went to Yale, for example, that’s a physical manifestation, or even a bias. Cultural fit is about the way people feel in the workplace and their purpose and the direction that they’re headed in.
There has been so much in the news recently about Uber, its company culture, and how people have been hurt by it. The company is taking steps to change things, and recently the company identified the former CEO as part of the problem. How would you advise a company that has obvious flaws in their company culture to make a major shift?
I think that what we’ve learned from Uber is that never before have we had an example so extreme where employees have the power to determine what their company culture looks like. Social [media] is a platform where employees can talk about what it’s really like at an organization. It used to be that some people up in a shiny office decided what an organization was and what the company culture would be and then hired people that fit into that. Now we are seeing organizations that have groups of people who can help mold the culture.
If I were counseling Uber, I would tell them to identify the good people in the organization and get them to determine your company culture. Don’t ask the C-Suite, don’t ask HR – the top down approach is no longer the way forward. You have all of these great people in your organization. Wouldn’t it be great if we could harness those great people and find out what they believe? What are the good values that exist at your organization and what are the good behaviors that will accomplish them? Start inside out, not from the top down. Ask yourself: who are the people that I want to keep? Because those are the people who are going to attract the talent that are sitting on the outside of your organization and who will determine what your company needs to be to get those good people to join you… When you’ve got such disruption and you’ve gotten it so wrong and you’ve had to do a cleanout this is the advice I’d give.
But keep in mind that Uber is just a high-profile example. This is happening everywhere, which means that there is an opportunity here for many organizations to talk to their employees and find out how they feel and ask them how they think.
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