Culture-driven recruiting: The key to long-term employee retention

Say the phrase “culture fit” to a recruiter and they may raise an eyebrow. Why? Because many people think of “culture” as a static, homogenous idea—a workplace where everyone shares the same background and interests. The idea of trying to fit every candidate into the same mold is problematic.

I don't think of culture as exclusive though—a company’s culture is its core values. Any applicant, regardless of their background or behaviors, can, and should, believe in the principles of the company they’re hoping to work for.

As recruiters, there is so much value in seeking out these candidates. Hiring applicants who align with your values allows you to build a workforce that has a genuine passion for your company, improving the overall employee experience and retention over time.

A positive perspective on culture fit

Evaluating culture fit is dangerous when “culture” means looking for candidates who are exactly like you and your peers. This monolithic view develops when recruiters conflate their personal lives with their professional lives. Instead of focusing on values, this definition of culture causes recruiters to look for applicants who went to their alma mater or, perhaps even worse, someone they “would share a beer with.”

Hiring for culture fit doesn't have to be bias-riddled, though. Keep the term positive by recognizing that culture is tied to your company's core values—not specific behaviors and experiences—and by defining your values in a way that is intentional and inclusive. Each principle should directly relate to a candidate’s ability to thrive at your organization and should be broad enough to align with any skilled applicants.

Here are a few examples to make the distinction clearer:

  • Exclusive value: “Our team is built with individuals who have a strong academic record and have shown a passion for lifelong learning.”

  • Inclusive value: “Our team members share a desire to be lifelong learners.”

For most positions, a high GPA and graduate education aren’t required qualifications that lead to better job performance. However anyone—regardless of their background—can have an enthusiasm for learning, and a drive to continually grow and learn can lead to stronger job performance.

When your company's values are defined explicitly and inclusively, evaluating culture fit is a valuable process, not a problematic one. Without excluding any applicants based on their background, you're able to find the candidates that are a strong fit for your company, and likely to stick around.

3 ways to find candidates who match your culture

People who feel connected to your core philosophies are going to be excited to work at your company and likely will want to stay there for years. To build a workplace with long-term retention, I use three strategies to find candidates that align with my company culture:

1. Honestly craft your employer brand.

You'll naturally attract candidates who are aligned with your culture if your employer brand authentically reflects your values.

If you don't breathe internally what you brand externally, you will run into trouble. Your messaging will attract candidates who aren't a great fit and aren't likely to stay at your company.

For example, say your company promotes its workplace as one with a passion for lifelong learning. With this messaging, your company should offer employees plenty of educational opportunities, like tuition assistance, training programs, or opportunities to attend conferences. New hires with a passion for learning may have joined expecting these kinds of offerings, so if your company doesn’t walk the walk in terms of learning opportunities, new employees may end up unhappy and even decide to leave.

Honestly crafting an employer brand is easier said than done. Work your way through the process by following these strategies:

  • Don't worry about competitors' branding. The candidate who is a great match for your competitor may be a terrible match for your company, so don't try to emulate competitor messaging.

  • Focus on the values that make your company unique. Highlighting your one-of-a-kind philosophies will help your company stand out to applicants who align with your culture.

2. Ask the right questions.

The mistake that many companies make with culture fit is informally gauging whether a candidate is a good match for their workplace. A decision about the applicant might be made based on a casual lunch conversation or in an unstructured interview.

Be intentional about the questions you're asking a candidate when assessing culture fit. I recommend behavior-based questions that are tied to your values.

For example, say you're a tech company, and one of your core values is “respect the user.” In that case, a great interview question about behavior would be, “Tell me about a time when you were involved in a decision that didn't respect the user.” The applicant will tell you what they did to correct the situation, and you can assess how user-focused they are, based on their actions.

Get the most out of behavioral, value-based questions by following these interviewing tips:

  • Be prepared to probe and dig deeper. The conversation doesn't stop at the applicant's first answer. Get to the root of the initial question by asking follow-up questions to fully understand the applicant's answer.

  • Plan questions beforehand with hiring managers. This planning will help the interview process flow smoothly, and it's an opportunity to catch any questions that are biased. You may also consider implementing an interviewing rubric in order to ensure that everyone is aligned on how to objectively assess for each value.

3. Get everyone involved in recruiting.

When all employees are involved in recruiting, it's much easier to communicate your culture to candidates.

Applicants build a strong sense of your company values when they're able to meet with all types of employees at your company, not just recruiters. By talking to a potential coworker, candidates can gain more insight into whether they are a good fit for the company's culture.

For example, I once set up an informal lunch meeting between a candidate and an engineering leader that had a major impact on the applicant's offer decision. The engineering leader really espoused the values of the company that I had communicated to the candidate, so I thought it would be useful for the candidate to speak with him. The lunch sealed the deal for the applicant.

If your company doesn't have a culture of recruiting, use these tactics to encourage participation in the hiring process:

  • Set up cross-functional interviews or meetings with an employee from a different department. The process gives candidates a deeper sense of the culture by talking to someone who isn't trying to promote their department.

  • Encourage executive involvement. If employees see that executives are involved in recruiting, they will feel motivated to pitch in as well. Ask senior leadership to speak at career events and communicate with candidates publicly.

Employees who align with your core values are more likely to contribute to your company for years. Find those applicants by evaluating culture fit. Once you recognize that culture fit is really a reflection of your core values that anyone can embrace, it becomes an inclusive, valuable framework.

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