Hiring for Culture in the Startup World

Becky Doles

Keep your company culture fun. Photo Credit: Kyle Kesterson

I know you all read our blog about making job fairs worth your while, right? It probably changed your world…or at least kept you distracted from work for five minutes. Either way, you now know that we’re in the process of growing our team (check here for current job openings!), and through the interviewing process we’ve had a chance to reflect on our company’s values and the direction we want to go in. And we’ve had to ask ourselves, just what kind of people do we want to join our team?

One of the big questions is whether to hire someone based on their qualifications or their potential to fit with the company culture. Ideally you find someone with skills that are an exact match to what you’re looking for, with a personality that compliments and enhances your team. But let’s be honest, finding a hire like that is a very difficult thing to do. So when you have to compromise on one or the other, which way do you lean? Brad Feld wrote a great blurb about this, and his opinion is, without a doubt, to hire for cultural fit over competence. His argument? You can teach, reteach or conform someone’s competence and knowledge, but not his or her values or personality. It may be tempting to give a little on culture, especially if you have an urgent need to fill a hole in the company, but be strong and resist—ESPECIALLY in positions that are leadership based. Not only will your existing team struggle with working under someone who is a different cultural fit, but once that individual starts making decisions of who to bring on after them, they’ll lean towards people that fit their own cultural outlook, not of the company as a whole. This will just lead to dissent and division, and is difficult if not impossible to recover from.

Believe it or not, deciding to hire someone based on the cultural fit is actually the easy part…the difficult part is how to figure out what kind of cultural fit they’ll be. I had a boss once that used to equate the hiring process to extreme dating—you’re essentially going on a one- to two-hour date with someone to decide whether or not you want him or her to immediately move in. I don’t know about you, but whenever I went on a first date, I’d be wearing my most flattering outfit, spend extra time on my hair and makeup, and do my best to show how witty, funny and carefree an individual I am. My dates had no idea that I am the grumpiest and whiniest person in the world when I first wake up in the morning, or that I’m really bad at putting clean laundry away (I HATE folding clothes), or that it isn’t all that uncommon for me to grow science experiments from last week’s leftovers. How is interviewing much different, except for the fact that most of us spend more time with our coworkers than we do with our spouses/significant others? You’re spending a few hours interviewing someone that you’re going to be next to day in and day out, for better or worse (but thankfully not till death do you part). How can you determine on a ‘first date’ whether you want to spend 40-55 hours (or sometimes more) each week with the person sitting across the table?

First, you have to figure out what your company and existing team believe in and value. Gather your team leads (or your entire company, if you’re still small enough), pass around a few beers, and start the conversation. A local start-up we know used a Value Deck made by Startup Happiness. It’s a deck of cards with various values like Challenging, Passion, Learning & Growth, Customers Love Us, Integrity & Trust, etc. The co-founders of the company each picked their top three and while there were a few differences, but for the most part all of them picked similar values. And just like that they had the heart of their company values and culture, and had a focal point for what qualities to look for in their candidates. I recommend that each and every company do this same thing, and even take it a step further and have your interviewee complete the same exercise. This doesn’t mean you have to rule them out if they don’t pick the ‘correct’ three, but this will give you some valuable insight into what kind of employee they might be. If you’re a company that often has to fly by the seat of your pants and apply band aids to your code, hiring someone who values a solid foundation and organization probably won’t blend well with your company.

Once you’ve determined that they have the same values, decide if their personality will fit with the rest of the team. Take them out to lunch or happy hour, or even walk down to the corner coffee shop as a group and treat everyone to their favorite caffeinated beverage. Watch how they interact with the team in an informal setting, and get your feedback on what the rest of your team thought of them. I’ve heard it said that talking over a beer makes the candidate feel much relaxed and open, and they’ll often reveal sides of their personality they wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing in an interview. I know of one company that did this with a candidate only to find out that their sense of humor was so dry that he offended a lot of their team. It didn’t mean he was a bad person, just that his personality was a bit different from most of the rest of the company, and as a result they didn’t hire him.

One last recommendation—don’t be afraid to hire someone with little to know experience, especially students. Not only will they be ‘untainted’ by the cultures and baggage of other companies, but they’re often much more eager and motivated than those that have been in the work force for many many years. They’ll often work longer hours since they don’t usually have spouses and kids waiting at home. They’ll be much more willing to put themselves out there and try new things, as many (not all, I know) of us who have been around for a long time tend towards the familiar and the tried-and-true, and often these new things lead to fantastic growth and opportunities for the company. And if you’re one of the first companies they work for and they feel they fit it, they’ll become true believers in your culture, your product, and your company, and won’t be afraid to tell everyone they know how awesome their job is.

At the end of the day, nobody is perfect—and I’m speaking towards your candidates AND you. If you end up hiring someone that just doesn’t fit in, don’t be afraid to admit your mistake and cut ‘em loose (making sure you follow all of the HR laws and restrictions in your area, of course)—you’re company will be healthier and happier in the long run. In the meantime good luck with your hiring process, listen to your gut, and HAVE FUN!!

Becky Doles

Becky is the Senior Content Marketing Manager at TUNE. Before TUNE, she led a variety of marketing and communications projects at San Francisco startups. Becky received her bachelor's degree in English from Wake Forest University. After living nearly a decade in San Francisco and Seattle, she has returned to her home of Charleston, SC, where you can find her enjoying the sun and salt water with her family.

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