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Culture fit vs role fit: How to know if an applicant is really the right hire

Culture fit vs role fit: How to know if an applicant is really the right hire Blog Feature

Katie Pritchard

Director of Client Services, 8+ Years of Client-Facing Project Management & Digital Marketing Expertise

February 18th, 2020 min read

If you’re sitting at your desk, about to send a job offer and hesitating for some reason that you can’t really put your finger on — we feel you. We’ve been there. 

Looking back at these moments and now knowing what unfolded after, I’ve determined that the hesitant feeling before moving forward with a new hire comes down to feeling “mostly good” about them as a culture add, or feeling “mostly confident” that they can succeed in the role. 

Knowing that both role fit and culture fit are equally important, why even move forward with a job offer in those instances, you ask?

Because they seem like such a good fit for the other area that you bury your doubts. 

“I’ll be able to train them.” 

“It’ll take some time to adjust to our way of doing things, but I think they can handle it.”

Maybe. But do you really have the time and resources to take that on risk?

At IMPACT, we try to stay as lean as possible, so making a hiring mistake costs us a lot. Frankly, that’s why we’ve spent so much time continually improving our hiring process.

We have a lot of stages we ask applicants to get through, so by the time they're a finalist, we feel very good about them. 

Even with all of the focus we’ve put on the hiring process, though, there have been times when we thought there was a role fit, but we were actually just too blinded by a strong culture fit.

In other words, we didn’t do a great job identifying if the candidate was fit for both.

Talk about a tough situation for a team — to get a new team member, excited that they’ll bring something new or help with the workload, only to find out that in the end they caused more issues than before. 

Not only was time spent onboarding them and coaching them, but after things don’t work out, there’s an even bigger gap to fill.

And, I’m sure there are times that we pass on someone that is extremely fit for a role, but we think isn’t a culture fit.

Suffice it to say, IMPACT has learned a good deal along the way, and this has helped us continually improve the hiring process (which we suggest you do as well!)

Here are some of the things we’ve learned about role fit, culture fit, and how to assess applicants for each during the hiring process.

How to know if an applicant is a role fit

When talking about ‘role fit,’ we mean: is the candidate able to meet the outcomes expected of the job?

Have they met those outcomes at a previous job? Your business is hiring because there is a need that must be met, and this position fills that need. 

(Note that we mention outcomes rather than activities. The activities are important, too, but the outcomes are measurable. Activities would would something like: “manage exploratory calls” whereas an outcome would be “book $100,000 of revenue every month.”)

Once you define the outcomes of the role, you’ll know someone is a good fit if they can provide specific examples of achieving similar outcomes in the past. 

This will yield meaningful interview conversations around what drove those outcomes, or how they overcame obstacles. Through the conversations, you’ll quickly know if they’re the real deal, or if they wouldn’t be able to handle what’s in store.

As previously mentioned, IMPACT has many stages of the hiring process that we’re continually adjusting/adding to. Right now, our average number of stages for open roles is seven.

We can confidently say the time we spend is worth it to make the right hire rather than the quickest hire.

Consider adding these steps to your hiring process:

A situation activity

An example of a situation activity for one of IMPACT’s positions would be an account manager and client call.

The applicant pretends they’re working at IMPACT as an account manager, and the hiring manager pretends to be a client. The applicant is given some instructions, but it’s up to the applicant to show us how they would perform on the job. 

For non-client facing roles in marketing, we test based on interviewing and writing skills. 

This can be a time-consuming process to set up. You have to come up with the instructions and scoring criteria, but once you’ve tested the activity with a few people, it takes less effort to tweak as needed. 

Even though the situation is artificial, you can weed out probably 90% of people that would have otherwise made it to final stages of interviewing. 

A more focused reference call

We all know how important this step in the process, but, I suggest you prepare for your reference calls in a different way. 

It’s easy to fall into the trap of saying “tell me about your experience of working with the applicant." This may give you some insight, but rarely the information you need.

Every person that’s listed as a reference is going to say good things. 

So, save your time and get down to what you actually need to confirm: can they get the measurable outcomes they confidently think they can? What is their record of doing so? 

By getting to those tougher questions, you’ll be able tell if your applicant is really able to achieve the outcomes they believe they can. 

Identifying for role fit can be time consuming, but it will be worth it in the end.

How to know if an applicant is a culture fit

Simple: just invite them to happy hour after work and see if they can connect with people... that’s essentially culture, right?

Clearly not, but if your team is part of the hiring process, sometimes the feedback you get is vague and gives you no further insight into whether this person could contribute to the overall culture.

Getting along with team members is important, but culture is more than that. According to Business News Daily, “cultural fit means that employees' beliefs and behaviors are in alignment with their employer's core values and company culture.”

Culture fit is important because misaligned beliefs and behaviors will prevent your organization from getting to where you want it to be. 

First, if you don’t have a defined culture, now is a good time to work on one. 

If you do have a well defined culture, think about how you can share it with an applicant.

Consider adding these steps to your hiring process:

Team interview

After several interviews and a situation activity, we often move individuals into a team interview. This is with all individuals they’d be interacting with on a regular basis to get team feedback and buy in about the potential hire.

The key here is to coach your team on how they should be evaluating the applicant. It’s easy to fall into the trap of “I liked them, they were friendly and I can see myself getting along with them.”

Positive feedback is good to hear, but this sort of response is too general to be very helpful.

Update your team on how the applicant has done in the process up until this point, and, share the outcomes expected for the role. Work with the team before the call to identify the questions and responses they’re looking for to ensure they’re on the right track. 

Also, talk with them about what would have to happen for a “thumbs down” and a “thumbs up” and get them to agree before the call. This will help prevent misaligned expectations after the call that can leave a split response. 

It’s good to remind everyone participating in a team interview of the impacts of a bad hire. Ask them “are we overlooking any downsides of this individual because they are such a likeable person or seemingly good culture fit?” 

This type of question will get your team thinking in the right direction. 

Pass the culture interview to another leader

In situations where you may know the applicant well, or have even worked with them before, it’s important to recognize that you may have blind spots. 

Pulling in an unbiased third party to complete a culture interview is essential to truly knowing if the applicant is a good fit. If they are, it should be a painless interview, and you’ve at least done your due diligence in the hiring process. 

If they’re not a fit, though it’s disappointing, you must trust the process.

Making the best hiring decisions

Finding an applicant that is equal parts role fit and culture fit is hard work, but achievable — and rewarding. Strengthening your hiring process will help you clearly see who will be a long term success, and who will flop. 

At IMPACT we often say “if it’s a maybe, it’s a no.” Recognizing this type of hesitation is our best key to success.

No one is perfect, but if you’ve done your due diligence and found the right mix of role fit and culture fit, then don’t waste any time delaying that offer.

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