culture Illustration: Mitch Blunt

What makes your company a great place to work? Chances are your response will include a reference to culture—a firm’s core values, mission and general dynamic, all manifested through staff behaviour and interaction. According to Kevin Sheridan, an employee-engagement specialist and the author of Building a Magnetic Culture, it’s “the invisible architecture of an organization.” Studies show that when you hire for “culture fit,” morale goes up, productivity improves, the bottom line benefits. But how, exactly, do you do it? Too often, the process focuses on the wrong criteria or lacks sufficient rigour. Gut decisions are all too common.

There’s a better way. Follow these proven tactics for hiring people who will both fit in and thrive in your culture.

Define your search: Asked to define their culture, most CEOs parrot the old line on pornography: they know it when they see it. This gives your search team no clear guidelines. That’s why you should set out exactly what your culture is—no corporate jargon allowed, says Marty Parker, CEO of Mississauga, Ont., recruiting firm Waterstone Human Capital. To do it, study a few of your top performers whom other staff tend to emulate. “You’re not looking at what they do but rather how they do it,” Parker says. This may tell you that your culture embraces collaboration, or is process-based, or lone wolf-friendly. Voila! You know what behaviours to seek in recruits.

Giving candidates details about your culture allows them to self-select, which weeds out bad fits early

Avoid the clone zone: In a recent magazine interview, Silicon Valley executive Shanley Kane slammed startups’ tendency to dismiss non-conformists as poor culture fits: “[It] tends to mean, ‘We just don’t like you. You’re different from us.’” Experts agree that very few firms can thrive with a staff made up of clones. People with different interests and backgrounds can complement and learn from one another. “You have to be wary of hiring the same type of person,” says Tim Duce, CEO of Toronto-based KMI Publishing and Events. “It’s important to have a mix.”

Put out smart feelers: A culture-fit hiring strategy requires good planning. Professional recruiters can assist the hunt, but it takes time (and money) for them to understand your culture. Social media—especially LinkedIn—is a great, if time-consuming, reconnaissance tool, especially if you’ve identified other organizations whose cultures you admire. The best way to find great fits? Employee referrals. “Good people know good people,” says Duce.

Go slow: Hiring for culture fit is rarely something you can do from a resumé or one-off interview. At Port Coquitlam, B.C.-based employee-benefits distribution firm BBD (Benefits By Design Inc.), culture fit has been a formal hiring criterion for nearly three years—and the process takes a lot longer than it once did, according to COO Kim Macey. While that sometimes puts extra demands on existing workers, Macey says that the increase in good hires has made most of the 80-person team accept the longer recruiting process: “They don’t want a bad hire any more than we do.”

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