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This is part of a two-month series on the importance of company culture. Find more posts about culture here.


I’m sorry, but it’s as simple as this: hire for culture, or fail.

You can do whatever you want to build a good culture or make a profitable company, but if you have a team that isn’t aligned with your cultural values then it’s just not going to be sustainable.

It’s not about untalented people or slackers who download cat videos while outsourcing their work. These folks are relatively easy to weed out. No company wants them. It’s the people who don’t believe the same fundamental things as you that are dangerous. Especially if you’re trying to build a user-centric organization.

Just you don’t want to hire someone who talks shit about the CEO in the break room, you don’t want to hire people who are going to complain about “idiot customers”. These may seem like minor infractions (everyone gets irritated at some point, right?) but they quickly contaminate other workers and create a toxic environment for customer care.

Toy Story characters saying: "What are they saying?" "Well...apparently we suck."

Did you know that Toy Story 2 almost sucked? Yep. After 3 years of work, the movie was starting to come together…but it wasn’t good. But because Pixar had built a culture where dissenting opinions were welcomed, Oren Jacob – who at the time wasn’t a screenwriter or creative director, but actually just Associate Technical Director – told Steve Jobs & John Lasseter that the movie stunk. They reviewed it, agreed, and totally revamped it. Toy Story 2 went on to be critically acclaimed and loved by kids and parents alike.

For this reason, “Don’t Be a Yes-Man” is one of our cultural values. Take a second to think: would every one of your staff be willing to tell the CEO if something sucked?

You can’t force someone to fit.

You can’t train someone to actually care. You can’t pay them to care. Could I pay you to care about my niece’s school play? No. I can pay you to fake it but you won’t really care (and when you think I’m not looking, you’ll behave how you really feel.)

The thing is, your users can tell. Even if you pay someone a hundred bucks for every smile and “thank you so much” they give, people can tell when it’s fake. It’s not about pretending to care; it’s about actually caring. Saying “we’re so sorry” is not nearly as effective as trying to actually solve the person’s problem. Saying “I profusely apologize, but we don’t have that feature” doesn’t help your company as much as elevating that feature request to your product team.

So, how do you hire for culture?

UserVoice value poster: have empathy and don't be a dick1) Figure out what your company values are. If you’re two guys in a garage, that’ll be an easy conversation. If you’re at a bigger company, it can be harder (Jason Cohen suggests it’s nearly impossible after 12 employees, though I’m not sure I agree.) Survey your staff and ask them what words, phrases, and attitudes come to mind when they think of your company. Do the same for your customers. Ask your CEO what he thinks your mission is. The most common themes become your values. (Hint: if the CEO’s answers differ wildly from everyone else’s, something is wrong.) You can find my full process for determining values here.

2) Develop interview questions that expose interviewees’ thoughts on those values. If one value is having empathy, then ask them if they ever worked at a place where people asked stupid questions. If they say yes and complain about it, that’s not a good sign. Let me be clear: you’re not necessarily looking for a “no”, just for a level of empathy. An acceptable answer would be “yes, the customers at my last company did ask dumb questions but it was just because they had less experience with computer software”. You’re trying to understand their biases, not their yes/no opinions. Failing any of these questions doesn’t rule them out, but should be warning signs.

3) Find opportunities to see what interviewees are like outside of the interview. I am absolutely against not hiring or firing someone because of their personal life, but if you see that they scream at reasonable people left and right on Twitter, that’s not a great sign. Zappos’s big trick is to see how interviewees treat the Zappos bus driver who takes them to the HQ.

4) Go with your gut. It’s a little scary, I know. But if someone feels like they’re not going to fit your culture on multiple fronts, then that feeling is probably right. Just make sure you don’t let a single odd response eliminate someone (one person we interviewed did poorly on our fun value…then ended up being one of the most fun employees we had).

Commenter on Lifehacker.com complaining about cultural interview questions

Some folks won’t like this. That’s totally fine…in fact, it’s helpful. The screenshot above is from a great comment thread on Lifehacker about cultural questions in interviews.  The guy bitching about how cultural questions are unfair comes across as an unpleasant person. Do you want him on your team? Probably not. Again, it’s not about the actual answers to the questions, it’s about the attitudes and values the interviewee reveals.

Evan Hamilton

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