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Should You Hire for Culture over Skills?

In his Harvard Business Review blog, Alan Lewis wrote an article titled, How My Company Hires for Culture First, Skills Second. Lewis raises an interesting question: Should managers prioritize their company’s culture over skill in the hiring process?

Joel Robitaille

In his Harvard Business Review blog, Alan Lewis wrote an article titled, How My Company Hires for Culture First, Skills Second. Lewis raises an interesting question: Should managers prioritize their company’s culture over skill in the hiring process?

Obviously, for certain jobs there definitely has to be a certain skill set, where experience becomes part of the equation. But if you hire someone to fulfill a role in your company who brings an immense amount of talent but fails to fit into your culture, have you really benefitted your operation or created another problem?

Lewis points out that skills often don’t tell the whole story, and that employees who don’t “mesh with its core values” are diluting the culture and “detracting from the essence that gives a company its identity” and helps it achieve its goals.

Consider your own experience with people in general. Isn’t it much easier to teach someone a skill than to convince that person to adopt your values? In Lewis’ experience, it’s a given that those associates who share their values can be taught the job skills. Besides, by concentrating just on skills you might be allowing an ideal candidate with less experience to just walk out the door.

One of the biggest challenges of using a “values-based model of hiring” often revolves around an adequate definition of the culture itself. Many companies confuse their goals with their values, which creates perpetual hiring mistakes. The key to distinguishing the two is to remember that “goals are where you’re going” and “values are how you’re going to get there.”

Another outcome of flawed execution could result in a lack of diversity. When different minds come together, there is a healthy, creative friction behind the innovation. You don’t want to lose this type of diversity. Likewise, you have to ask yourself if you can prioritize culture and still respect ethnic, racial or gender issues. There could be legal repercussions if you lose sight of equal opportunity.

A values-based approach will also require some adjustments to the interview process. How do you go about interviewing for values, especially when candidates can be quite adept at telling you what you want to hear?

Lewis offers these three suggestions:

1. Don't just ask candidates to tell you how they espouse your company's values; let them show you. There are many directions you can take to get a potential hire to disclose the truth. You can assign homework. You can role play scenarios. In Lewis’ case, the hiring process included a group interview for various positions so he could see how the candidates being considered interacted with each other and showed leadership qualities. You can customize your own interview process to find ways to get your interviewees to show you the truth.

2. Be crystal clear about your culture and values. Be upfront and open about your company’s values. If they aren’t appealing to a candidate, both parties can avoid being dissatisfied with each other.

3. Don't combine skills interviews with values interviews. When you keep them separate you can avoid overlooking important information that you might have missed had you combined the two.

Hilda S. Hildebrand, in her article How Company Culture Impacts Hiring, also suggests that you add a cultural angle to the questions you ask when following up with references and conducting background checks. This will help you identify the type of cultures and environments the candidate has been exposed to in the past.

By hiring for culture, you are concerning yourself with the long-term success of your company. But before you set out to build a team of strong cultural matches you have to be sure that you understand your own culture; that you’re capable of surrounding yourself with people who share your values without threatening diversity; and that your interviewing process is robust enough to separate the wheat from the chaff.