Company culture is all the rage in PDX startup land. It’s incorporated into hiring processes and strategic planning meetings. There are even full time jobs dedicated to ensuring the success of a company’s culture. When you’ve got an intimate staff size that’s in the single or double digits, every new employee makes a difference, shifts the vibe, rocks the boat, changes at least one person’s job duties—all of these hopefully for the better.
Considering the high cost of turnover and awkwardness of employee relations issues, it makes perfect sense why startups place equal if not higher value on a culture vs skillset match. After all, a defining trait of working at a startup is that we hang out with our coworkers both in and out of the office – so these new hires had better be people we love.
The challenge is how do we ensure that we’re hiring someone who has mad job related skills AND will slide seamlessly into our group of crazies. Below are three steps for assessing culture fit and determining just who might be wo/man enough to join your nerd herd.
1) Start with identifying the culture.
Culture means the feel of a business vs the hard facts. Having a solid definition of what it feels like to work there is the first step in making good hires.
How I describe startup culture to friends, family, future coworkers:
- The 3 C’s. Creativity, curiosity, crazy are required.
- The 3 I’s. The recipe for a solid foundation is information + innovation = invention.
- Lovers of ambiguity, hard/unforeseen problems, voicing opinions, post midnight emails work here. Their talent is vast and uncontained. They are inspirational. And they are all hilarious.
- Recognition for both successes and failures happens on the regular.
- There may not be a 401k, a career ladder, or even a job description. But employees can wear flip flops, bring their cats to work, come into and leave the office when they feel like it, and the startling abundance of free food and drink correlates directly to the free yoga and exercise options that are part of the total compensation package. Think perks vs benefits.
It’s important to figure out what your culture really is so that you can talk through it with prospective employees. Nothing in place? Start with polling your staff, your execs, people in the community who know you. Ask them how they’d describe the people they work with and the overall vibe. Ask about the perks vs benefits. Ask about what landed them there and why they stay.
2) Follow it up with identifying the true job need.
The focus here is to be adding new positions gracefully, thoughtfully, sustainably—not just because “holy shit we need a
n Ops guy Dev Ops Hero NOW” that may not be needed in one month. This is important in terms of presenting an accurate portrayal of not only the job you’re interviewing someone for, but a *culture of transparency.
Prep internal constituents:
In order to keep a culture chill. Be as open as possible about the process to alleviate confusion around a hire. Be certain on the full time/part time/permanent/temporary status of a needed position. Talk it over with staff so they’re in the loop on what potential new person may be coming on, and what this will mean for a person/team job-wise. Even the tiniest of heads up can head off staff revolt. This is particularly important for those who will be meeting prospective candidates. The goal is for employees to feel well informed and fully comfortable talking about this new opportunity with the interviewee across the table vs “yeah, I guess we need a front-end
dude dude/dudette, that’s what they told me this morning.” Current staff contributes to a big cultural first impression.
Let’s be honest, startup jobs ebb and flow constantly. Re-orgs, or shit—just ‘orgs’—happen all the time. It’s our hiring responsibility to convey the job needed at the time of the interview, discuss potential evolutions of said job, address stability as best we can, and simply put: be transparent.
By disclosing everything we know about an open position at that very moment with staff and candidates, we fill in all of the blanks. This way staff is onboard and willing to participate in the process if necessary, and candidates don’t have to piece together the details of the job, which can breed confusion about the culture. And in some cases even result in declining an offer.
*If being transparent about the job/culture is a challenge – be open about the lack of transparency. No surprises. And then work on improving transparency. That may very well be my next blog post topic…
3) Assessing potential new coworkers.
Ask good questions. Listen listen listen, way more than you talk. It’s amazing what people will say if you just… listen. Have a short list of broad ideas on what you hope they’ll say. Have an even shorter list of dealbreakers. Notice how you feel about each answer, take the occasional note, but see if you can get a good read on your intuitive response to what a candidate is saying and how they are saying it.
A few culture-related questions:
- Motivation: why are you here? what motivates you outside of cold hard cash? have you ever felt unmotivated – what happened, how did you respond, who besides you was a factor, and what did you learn? what has been your greatest nonverbal reward?
- Victories and losses: what are some of your greatest triumphs and greatest challenges that you’ve had in your career? how do you know when you’ve nailed it or blown it completely? at what point do you ask for help? what is your recovery process? what is your celebration process?
- Playing well with others: how would your best and most challenging boss, coworker describe you? list a few characteristics that you need from a boss/coworker that would be a dealbreaker? who have been some of your most inspirational bosses/coworkers, and why? how/when do you know it’s appropriate to speak up, or tag in and help a coworker?
- The job: what excites you about this opportunity, what made you apply? do any of the responsibilities make you feel anxious, and if so, what would you need in order to feel confident about your ability to handle the job? how does this role compare or contrast to what you’re currently doing, and on that note, what is motivating you to consider new opportunities?
- Logistics: what would we learn about you in a few months that we wouldn’t know about you on day 1? what is your preferred communication style, favorite color, most influential person in your life? are you a morning person vs night owl? how do you kill time when stranded at an airport?
- Questions for you: ask them to ask you anything. Hope that they will have something to ask, be ok with if it they don’t. If you’re comfortable with it, share your contact information so that they may follow up with you directly if questions arise post interview.
Making the decision…
Keep it simple. Just like culture is a feel, a candidate will leave you with the same. A feel, a gut vibe response. Remember that they are sizing up potential culture fit as much as you are, so all you can do is present a clear picture of what it looks like at your company and hope for a good match instead of forcing it to fill a role. Take the extra time to ask non job specific questions. Read the resume, check the references. When it comes to give the thumbs up/down, don’t second guess yourself and don’t get bogged down in analyzing or quantifying specifics. *Pay attention and give voice to your gut vibe – it’s (almost) always right. No arguing.
*This applies not only to hiring but to all life decisions.
Note from the Editor: This post has been edited to suit all audiences, as was the author’s original intent. We believe in the importance of fostering and promoting diversity and inclusion not only at PIE, but in the greater Portland startup community—beards or no beards.
-Kirsten Golden, Program Manager