Cultural Fit & Value Interviews Are Super Common – But Are They Doing More Harm Than Good?

Cultural Fit & Value Interviews Are Super Common – But Are They Doing More Harm Than Good?

It’s been a notable trend over the last decade that organizations have chosen to focus hiring more and more for ‘culture’ and ‘values’.

That is, each company will have a predefined set of expected ‘values’ that – in theory – they would like everyone in the organisation to adhere to. For example, these values might include things like ‘Be Ready’, ‘Make It Happen’, ‘Don’t F&*k the Customer’ or ‘Never Give Up’.

The idea is that if an organisation can articulate what values they want, they’ll then be able to attract candidates that will ‘fit in’ with those pre-existing values. Better to have everyone aligned, on the same page, pulling in the same direction, the theory goes.

Now when it comes to hiring, it’s routine now for companies to have an explicit ‘values’ interview or interviews. Sometimes these are standalone, sometimes these are components of any interview. For example, even within a largely technical interview, the candidate might still be evaluated on how well their behaviour seemed to align with the values.

For the standalone values and culture interviews, normally these will be behavioural style interviews where candidates are asked various questions that are, ostensibly, trying to assess whether or not the candidate demonstrates the value. The idea is that candidates who can answer these questions 'well' demonstrate a strong match for those values and will therefore be a good ‘cultural fit’.

For example, if ‘Win Together’ was a value, the candidate might be asked to ‘Tell us about a time that you collaborated with your colleagues on a project’, or for ‘Make It Happen’, they might be asked ‘Tell us about a time that you battled through adversity to ultimately be successful’.

The candidate – if they’re savvy – would have prepared some ideas ahead of time for expected questions, and so will have some anecdotes on the ready. They might need a lot of these depending on how long the hiring process is. For example, in Australia Amazon has 7 rounds of interviews for individual contributor data analysts.

So this is the theory of cultural fit and values interviews, but what happens in practice? What are some of the problems and issues with cultural fit and values interviews?

We delve into 8 significant problems with cultural fit interviews below.

Lip service or reality?

The values that are written on the office wall and on the careers page are - obviously - not always acted on in the company – they're more like aspirational types of goal values. This is ok – we should all be aiming for something – but we should be realistic with this disconnect.

For successful candidates, they are going to be instantly disappointed if you’ve preached endlessly about a data-driven culture during the whole hiring process, but then they rock up on day 1 and nothing is measured and it’s all just based on gut feel.

Likewise, there might be great candidates that are getting rejected because they don’t fit a set of values that are just theoretical. Be careful with this, especially in a candidate short market.

One company, one set of values?

Even in relatively small companies, the actual culture varies significantly from team to team, country to country, office to office etc. Culture is never uniform, so then when it comes to hiring, which culture and set of values are you actually selecting for? The official values of the company, or maybe more like the shadow values that actually exist in a given team or unit?

Try to be clear and realistic about this.

Actions speak louder than words

Because values & culture are evaluated in a behavioural interview, this approach tends to select for candidates who are good at talking the talk, not necessarily walking the walk.

The clear problem is that values are never about talking a big game - they are about behaviours & actions, not mere words. A good blagger can always invent an amazing BS story to sound impressive in an interview. But can they walk the walk? Interviews are not an effective way to figure this out.

Who is right and who is wrong?

The values and culture interview questions normally don’t have right or wrong answers. In other words they're subjective. This makes them rife for potential bias. Who is meant to be the arbiter of what demonstrating the value ‘better each day’ is, for example?

The consequence of this is twofold - lots of amazing candidates who did have the right values will score poorly in these interviews, and candidates who don’t actually have those values will score well and get hired.

What happened to bias?

Interviews, in general, are full of bias. Cultural fit and values interviews are especially prone to this.

Don Moore, from the California Management Review describes here how cultural fit interviews are inherently biased. They are basically just an entire exercise in ‘similarity bias’.

"I know that people believe that they can assess fit, but when pushed as to what that means, they have the vaguest of responses...they like them...well where do your feelings of liking them come from? Because the person looks like you, talks like you, is a similar demographic, age, race, went to the same schools etc. Fit is nothing more than a judgement of how similar someone is to you...and it opens the door to many prejudices and biases."

If we’re being serious about creating bias-free hiring processes, then we’d be thinking twice about using cultural fit interviews.

We all wear masks

We should all realise that people don't act like themselves in an interview. Interviews are a performance, an act, some theatre, for the candidate to position themselves in a certain light, and for the interviewer to position the company and role in a certain way.

There’s a large layer of BS involved, so you can't expect that the candidate’s actual behaviour will match what they said it would be in an interview.

This is one of the underlying reasons why interviews do not predict job performance very well.

Sample size warning

Culture and values interviews are behavioural interviews, and normally last for about 30-60 minutes. To think that you can accurately gauge someone’s entire set of values during this time is wishful thinking at least.

So because of this tiny sample size, just be careful with reading too much into the results from these interviews.

We’ve tried the best, now we want the rest

“Yeah he scored 40 points, but I just don't think Michael Jordan is a good cultural fit for our team.” SAID NO COACH EVER.

The issue here is again that hiring for culture and values is sometimes directly at odds with hiring the best, most suitable candidate for the role. Michael Jordan had the best (physical and mental) skills, that’s why he was the best.

What happened to diversity?

The final, and definitely the most troubling issue with culture and values interviews is that hiring for ‘cultural fit’ is diametrically opposed to promoting diversity?

It is impossible to simultaneously hire someone who ‘fits in’ with cultural values, and is also different to what you currently have. Diversity & fitting in are opposites.

So you need to choose - do you want people who are different with different ideas, backgrounds, ways of thinking, values, feelings, or do you want everyone to be the same?

We hope this has given you some food for thought on cultural fit and values interviews and some of the practical issues with them.

Looking to progress from cultural fit to fair hiring? Check out our definitive guide to diversity hiring.

Hear from leading Alooba customers who have already progressed to objective, fair hiring.

I wouldn't dream of hiring somebody in a technical role without doing that technical assessment because the number of times where I've had candidates either on paper on the CV, say, I'm a SQL expert or in an interview, saying, I'm brilliant at Excel, I'm brilliant at this. And you actually put them in front of a computer, say, do this task. And some people really struggle. So you have to have that technical assessment.

Mike Yates, The British Psychological Society (Head of Data & Analytics)

Looking to crush interview bias? Check out our best practice interview guide.