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3 Examples of Culture Fit Interview Questions & What You Can Learn from a Candidate’s Answers

Brie Rangel

VP of Services, 10+ Years of Digital Marketing Experience

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3 Examples of Culture Fit Interview Questions & What You Can Learn from a Candidate’s Answers Blog Feature

Published on March 11th, 2019

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Throughout the ups and downs at IMPACT, there’s one thing that keeps everyone continuously motivated and determined to grow this company: our culture.

As someone responsible for hiring, I have an oddly strong sense of purpose to maintain it. Some might call me "The Mama Bear of Culture." (No one calls me that.)

With as much hiring as we've done, we are still always learning the best questions to ask to uncover if someone really is a great fit.

It's important to note, before I get into some of the questions we ask to keep our culture intact, that we don’t look for “culture fit” -- we look for culture add.

We don’t want to hire the same person over and over again. We want to build a team of smart people who continuously challenge each other to grow, which means they can’t all be the same.

For the sake of colloquialism though, I’ll stick with the term “culture fit” in this article.

While we're not looking to hire a homogenous bunch, we do consistently screen for company values and the overall “IMPACTy” attitude that pushes us day in and day out to do our best work.

Below, I'm sharing three questions we ask to help determine culture fit. But first...

Company Culture is Personal - Determine Your Own Questions

The end.

Just kidding. Let me explain that heading.

Every company is different, so although I provide some general questions to ask in this article, you have to figure out what to ask based on your culture.

Here’s an exercise we did to help us tailor our interview questions.

We started by creating a two-column list of the most positive traits of our team members and the negative traits that led some of our former employees to leave.

Rather than go in a corner and do this by myself, I had a 1-hour brainstorm with a few key people involved in our hiring process, as well as managers who brought great insight.

Following the creation of that list, Natalie Davis, our VP of Talent, and I met to figure out how we could reverse engineer our hiring process to uncover both the positive and negative traits. Funnily enough, 99% of the negative traits correlated to culture.

With each trait, we asked ourselves where it made the most sense to test for it in our hiring process and then how -- whether we ask a question or incorporate the trait testing into our situational activity.

We then standardized them so each stage in our hiring process has a set of questions we know test for core values, "IMPACTiness" and skill.

3 Examples of Culture Fit Interview Questions

If you do the exercise above, you will develop 10+ questions, probably even more, that are personalized to your business.

Having said that, below are some of our favorites to ask to determine a strong culture-fit candidate for IMPACT.

Question #1: Why do you want to work for [your company name]?

This is a great first question to ask. It starts the conversation off on a light note and feels like an easy question to your candidates.

Only you’d be surprised how many people answer this poorly.

I hear so many candidates start with, “because it’s a remote position,” as their immediate response. Really? That’s what you’re going to lead with?

I learn so much about how much a candidate has researched our company and what they value in an employer by asking this as my first question.

I also learn who hasn't done their research with this question.

In addition to seeing the amount of effort a candidate put in, I can also usually tell if the candidate is genuine. This is a gut feeling of course, but it’s the first chance we we have to gauge whether someone is IMPACTy.

If their response feels extremely rehearsed and the general inflection in their voice feels off, I note this.

I don’t necessarily eliminate that candidate immediately, but I do listen carefully to the rest of their responses with my “Client Test,” in which I ask myself, "If I was a client, how would I feel if this person was my main point of contact at IMPACT?"

If the answer is anything but positive or full of excitement, I don’t move them forward.

Whether you’re hiring someone to work with clients or internal stakeholders, you can create your own gut-check test by placing yourself in the shoes of the person this new hire would interact with the most.

Once I hear their initial response, I follow up with additional questions to better clarify what’s important to them in an employer to make sure what they’re looking for aligns with what we have to offer.

As you incorporate this into your own hiring process, listen for the following:

  • How well the candidate researched your company

  • What areas specifically the candidate notes as a reason they want to work for you (Are they strong reasons? Super generic with no specificity? Or great reasons?)

  • The tone in which they answer (Is it a little too rehearsed?)

Question #2: Describe a time when you were tasked with something you didn’t know how to do and how you overcame it.

Now we’re starting to get into the uncomfortable questions.

It's worth noting that if you’re not asking uncomfortable questions, you’re not getting deep enough in your interviews. You’re doing yourself and your candidates a disservice by not properly vetting them and setting everyone up for success.

This question can reveal a lot about someone’s character and how they actually align with your core values.

First of all, if a candidate says this has never happened to them, end the interview (gracefully).

This person will never be a good fit if they are not confident enough to be vulnerable.

And that’s what you’re really listening for -- can they admit they didn’t know how to do something and did they show initiative to fix it?

I meet with a lot of candidates who cannot do this. They struggle to show one of the most important human elements in any relationship -- vulnerability -- because they think they need to come across as perfect in an interview.

Performing my “Client Test” again, how would a client ever trust someone they work with if that person refuses to acknowledge anything they do wrong?

The second part of what you’re listening for is just as important as the first -- did they do anything about it?

I don’t really care what the thing is they say they didn’t know. I care they were self-aware enough in the moment to recognize they had deficits and that they worked to overcome them.

In our company, we don’t spell everything out for our employees. There are a countless moments when members of our team just have to figure out how to do something on their own.

When asking this question, I can better gauge if a candidate is able to thrive in our environment or if they will flounder due to lack of self-awareness, vulnerability and initiative.

As you incorporate this into your own hiring process, listen for the following:

  • Can they think of a time when they didn’t know how to do something? (Eliminate them if they can’t.)

  • If they can, did it take them a really long time to think of it? (If so, this is usually a red flag for lack of self-awareness. Be mindful though that they could also just be nervous.)

  • Did they take meaningful steps to overcome it? (Major bonus points if they took what they learned and taught others in the company.)

Question #3: Describe a time when something really unfair happened at work.

This question can help uncover a person’s true values. It also makes it next to impossible to get a B.S., canned response.

What you want to listen for with this question is what a candidate perceives to be unfair and if they, again, are comfortable being vulnerable in this moment and allow you to get to know them on a deeper level.

Nine times out of ten, a candidate will say something referring to their boss or a decision made at the company level that was out of their hands.

What you want to do then is dig deeper to understand if they are more likely to blame others vs. take responsibility for the situations they found themselves in.

You also want to hear how they dealt with their frustration (i.e. in a healthy way in which they discussed their concerns and brought solutions to their manager/team, or did they rally a bunch of other employees who had nothing to do with the decision so they could have others to commiserate with them?)

Lastly, listen closely for how many times they say the word, “I.” If the only focus is on themselves and they did not mention their team or how their actions affected others, there’s a big red flag.

As a manager, this especially should concern you because, like most leaders, you want to build a team of people who can help support your growth, which often comes with change and challenges. Someone who crumbles during tough times or who only cares about themselves is not going to help you achieve this objective.

You may be asking yourself what the other one out of ten typically say to that question. If the person lacks the self-awareness and depth to understand why I’m asking this question in the first place, I find they often respond with a joke or a sarcastic response.

Because I know I’m asking uncomfortable questions, if they had done well until this point, I’ll allow them a second chance to respond with a serious answer. If I still don’t get one, I don’t move them through.

As you incorporate this into your own hiring process, listen for the following:

  • What do they consider unfair? (Is it reasonable?)
  • Did they take any accountability for the situation?
  • How did they handle their frustration? (Were they mature or did they cause drama?)
  • Was it all about them? 

One Final Note: Your First Question Isn’t Enough

The last point I’d like to touch on is this.

I’ve given you 3 example questions for culture-fit evaluation, but did you notice what I provided after each question?

More questions!

To really get below the surface-level answer, you need to ask follow-up questions to everything you ask. Candidates rarely get to the heart of what you’re asking until you fully listen to their response and build off it with a deeper question.

For example, here’s a very typical first question and follow up conversation I start with a candidate to illustrate my point:

Me: Tell me about an inbound marketing campaign you’ve done that yielded great results.

Candidate: We had a client in the X industry. We put together a strategy comprised of X and X and after running the campaign for X amount of time, it went really well.

Me: That sounds great. You mentioned “we” a couple times, what specifically was your role and who else worked with you on this campaign?

Candidate: (They then describe what they did and who else helped.)

Me: So before you put the strategy together, how did you decide on that strategy?

Candidate: (They usually say something about how they set goals in the beginning of the conversation that led to the tactics they put together to achieve them.)

Me: Did you specifically set the goals or was that someone else on your team?

Candidate: (They usually say they did or admit someone else on the team did.)

Me: “Nice. You also mentioned that it went really well. What were the specific results?”

Candidate: (They usually know a rough idea if not very specific numbers depending on how recently it was executed.)

Depending on their responses, I may ask a few more questions than than what I've shared here, but the point is, I didn’t just take their perfectly rehearsed first response as gospel that they know what they’re doing.

Oftentimes I find they had a much smaller role in the campaign, they have no idea that goals are a first step in figuring out a strategy, etc.

I’m also listening for over-use of buzzwords and generally that the substance of their response makes sense and would yield good results.

The stage after this one is where we get deeper into their skills with an activity, but I often save both me and the candidate that hour if I don’t hear what I’m looking for with this initial conversation.

You can do the same by not accepting the first answer as enough.

There’s always more to the story and more than what a candidate may have prepared in their elevator speech.

Asking great questions can help you discover that.

Be Friendly So Candidates Open Up

One last piece of advice: be friendly.

When you ask question after question, you could easily fall into the trap of making the candidate feel like they are in an interrogation as opposed to an interview. 

Go in with the mindset that you're truly trying to get to know more about the people you meet, be scrupulous in what you're listening for, and at the end of the day, enjoy the fact that you got to meet someone new today whether they move forward in your hiring process or not.

This not only takes the monotony out of hiring, it also helps ensure you come across warmly - and that will help ensure you get the best answers possible from your candidates.

Love this topic and have some thoughts to share? Head over to IMPACT Elite to share with the community and be sure to tag me so we can chat!

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