AKF Partners

Abbott, Keeven & Fisher PartnersPartners In Hyper Growth

Interviewing Engineers Continued – Part III (The Cultural Interview)

The most often overlooked aspect of interviewing a candidate is interviewing the candidate for a cultural “fit” within your team.   An employee who doesn’t fit in with the company culture can ruin team dynamics and actually reduce your engineering throughput rather than raising it.  The radio show This American Life did a show about bad apples in December 2008, Ruining it for the Rest of Us, which does a great job covering the downside of employees with bad attitudes.  

The biggest failure most managers have in the area of interviewing for cultural fit is that they far too often spend somewhere between 1 and 3 total hours with a candidate before making a hiring decision.  On top of this, they may have 2 to 5 people spend an hour each with the candidate. None of this is sufficient to get a good feel for the candidate and whether they will work well within the team.  You and your team probably spend more time researching major purchases such as a car, a house or even a flat screen TV set.  You and your team are probably going to spend 9 to 12 hours a day, 5 days a week with the newly hired employee.  There’s a good chance you don’t spend that much time with your significant other, your family or your friends within a week.

The most obvious aspects of this interview is to ensure that the candidate has the right work ethic, shares similar goals and aspirations, and works and plays well with others.  This is honestly easier said than done, but it is nevertheless an absolute necessity if you are to be happy with your hiring decision.  Here are some suggestions to get you started:

  1. Make a list of your current cultural aspects and those to which you aspire.  Is your team a bunch of workaholics?  Do they often get together after work and “blow off steam” or are they largely socially introverted?  Do you have a culture where people talk openly about issues?  Do people work mostly at work, or do they take work home with them?  Does the team joke around a lot, or are they “buttoned up”?   Is this person a “grandstander” or does he or she have a “hero mentality” or are they all about making the team perform better?
  2. Identify the folks on your team who exemplify the culture you have or the culture to which you are attempting to move the team and have them be part of the interview team.  Be careful only to select “A” players as you don’t want “B” and “C” players kicking out a potential “A” player for the wrong reason.
  3. Distribute a set of cultural questions that everyone should ask as a baseline so that you are reviewing the same questions.  You should encourage people to create their own as well as you want both innovation in the process and a good set of “control” questions.

Be careful not to confuse the need for diversity with the need for cultural fit.  You absolutely want different perspectives and approaches in your team.  This diversity leads to the abolition of “group think” and creates a higher performing team.  But you don’t want to bring a person who is constantly pointing fingers into a team that looks to solve problems together.

Before you hire anyone, each member of the interview team should have spent enough time with the individual to be able to answer the question of whether they “like” the person.  You aren’t really interviewing the person to see whether they could be a friend as you are still their boss, but you had better be able to answer the following questions at a minimum before offering someone a job:

  1. Can I be with this person 9 to 12 hours a day and still enjoy working with them?
  2. Can this person offer something to the team as a contributor and will the team accept the person given the behaviors I’ve perceived during my hours of interview and discussion?
  3. Can I learn from this person?  Note – this doesn’t mean that the person is smarter or has more experience than you much as it is a question of whether you can form a relationship with this person such that when they have valuable information or experience, you will be willing to accept it from them.
  4. Can I coach this person?

We propose that if the answer to any of the above questions is “No”, then the person is not a fit for you or your organization.


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