Recruiting for fit

7 steps to ensure candidate’s success
By Marty Parker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/28/2012

Cultural fit is more important than skills when hiring. That was the consensus of a majority (85 per cent) of respondents to Waterstone Human Capital’s 2011 Canadian Corporate Culture Study.

Furthermore, successful candidate placements (the longer tenures) were far more common when an employer focused on finding the right cultural fit rather than relying solely on an exact skill set.

So how does an employer hire for fit? Here are a few things to consider:

Find key success behaviours: Finding successful people isn’t enough anymore — it’s finding out how they’re successful that’s really important. Look at the most successful people in the organization and identify five or six common behaviours they share. But don’t just look at what high performers have accomplished within the organization, look at the types of cultures in which those individuals generated their past results. Furthermore, keep a list of organizations that have cultures similar to yours.

Practise continuous/active recruitment: Great organizations practise active recruitment. This means they look a few years down the road and build a virtual bench of people whom they may need to recruit. This is critically important if an organization has high rates of churn or other shorter-term succession needs. Practising active recruitment is hard but it’s a time- and cost-effective approach.

But it is not something every organization is equipped to do. Ideally, a virtual bench ensures that for the top two or three positions in the management or leadership team there are at least two or three potential candidates in the wings. Knowing who these individuals are gives the organization a significant competitive advantage in terms of its ability to recruit for fit.

Screen and interview for fit: Technical and skill competencies are the price of entry for candidates these days. Behaviour — that is, how the person does things as measured against the cultural index of successful people within the organization — needs to be front and centre. The first place to start in this process is with the chronological interview to understand not just the professional but the person behind the role, to learn about how she was and is successful, how she thinks and her behaviour trends.

Here are the basic steps of a chronological interview:

• Ask questions starting with a candidate’s education and moving forward.

• Ask for the story of the candidate’s career.

• Look for career transitions and ensure you understand why those transitions took place.

• Collect names along the way and find out whom the candidate reported to at each stage.

• Find the links between how a candidate thinks and what he’s done, and look for trends in those behaviours. History repeats itself — candidates with a successful track record are far more likely to continue being successful.

• Examine the types of environments the candidate worked in and find out why they worked and why they didn’t. Did the candidate perform better in larger organizations or in smaller, more entrepreneurial places? Also, ask the candidate how she viewed the cultural environment of her previous workplaces and why they did (or didn’t) make her successful.

• Look for gaps that require further examination.

Get beyond the interview: To get beyond the interview, the next step is to determine the candidate’s behavioural style and find ways to discover who he is as a person. Understanding the person is critical in recruiting for fit. But it’s not an easy task, especially if the candidate is well-honed and knows how to answer each question the right way.

There are also some stickier considerations, such as how much an employer can ask, depending on various laws in their jurisdiction. The idea is to seek as much information as possible by asking open-ended questions such as, “What do you do in your spare time?” and “What are your passions and interests outside of work?”

Conduct additional and multiple non-interview meetings. Move the candidate into additional discussions (such as 100-day plans, business case discussions or SWOT (strengths, weaknesses/limitations, opportunities and threats) analysis. These serve as great measurements of actual behaviour and you can observe how the person works. Other ideas include lunches, dinners or meetings with the candidate and her spouse. One hiring manager likes to meet his potential candidates on the ski hill on a Saturday afternoon, just to see the person in a different environment.

Seek the opinions of others: Relying on two or three individuals on a search committee to interview and hire a candidate is an all-too-common approach — well-intentioned but misguided, especially when hiring for fit. In fact, including others in the decision-making process is critical. There’s no rule as to how many others should be included in the process but there’s a bit of a law-of-diminishing-returns effect — it’s more than three and probably fewer than six or seven. The key is to incorporate the opinions of others with different styles.

Conduct directed referencing: Why do we ask candidates to submit the names of individuals who will act as references on their behalf? What do we think we’re going to get in return? Nothing but “He’s wonderful” (if not, we have other problems).

As a starting point, we should be asking for the names of the people the candidate has reported to and the names of professional colleagues or other individuals who have reported to the candidate. We should also focus on the network of people we, as the search partner, might also know. Social networking is a great tool for this, as it increases the likelihood of having a connection with the candidate. The employer should be directing the process and providing the candidate with a list of names of people it wants to speak to in conducting the referencing process, as opposed to the candidate supplying the list.

Integrate: Integrating a new candidate into the organization and culture is critical. Unfortunately, it’s also the stage where the ball is most commonly dropped. It goes beyond showing her where her office is and explaining the benefits package. It’s about managing expectations as she starts her job and managing the expectations of the person who hired her. Integration should be about using what you know about the candidate’s behaviour. It’s about measuring the behaviours early on to see whether you got what you thought you got and to allow you to make course corrections early, if necessary.

To deal with those behaviours in the integration phase, the HR team or search partner needs to have a good discussion with the candidate at the 30-day mark and again at the 60-day mark. These time frames act as your early detection system if problems are arising.

The above is an excerpt from Marty Parker’s new book Culture Connection: How Developing a Winning Culture Will Give Your Organization a Competitive Advantage. Parker is founder, chairman and CEO of Waterstone Human Capital in Toronto, an executive search firm, and he can be reached at or (416) 408-4545.

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