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HIRING

How to Screen for Culture Fit Without Age Bias

In the process of screening for cultural fit, you might be unwittingly shutting out experienced job candidates.

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"Ageism in the startup world is real," Jason Henrichs declared recently.

Henrichs would know: He is the managing director of Startup Institute and a veteran of several startups. He has seen the ageism go both ways. In biotech and clean energy, investors favor decades of experience. But at consumer Internet startups, older entrepreneuers, he says, "will find it nearly impossible" to get funding.

The Hiring Process

Then there's the hiring process. Experienced employees--for all the smarts and connections they bring--typically are pricier (salary-wise) and have more outside demands (families), Henrichs notes in the Wall Street Journal. It's no stretch, then, to surmise that experienced employees might not be the best cultural fits in startup settings where the founders take no pay and get no sleep. 

Here's the problem: No two startup cultures are alike. Perhaps the only norm is the lack of norms.

Which means that--at some startups--the founders actually do sleep and actually do get paid. Likewise, you can bet there are experienced job candidates who'd be all too happy to live the stereotypcial startup life (no sleep, no pay) for the right endeavor. 

The bottom line? Startups need to screen prospective employees for cultural fit. The question is, How do you do this without defaulting to a process that potentially weeds out employees--older or younger--who might be more than happy to adapt to the prevailing culture? Inc.com recently discussed this with Henrichs.

Inc.: What lessons can you share about screening for cultural fit? 

Henrichs: Cultural fit is both hardest to screen for and it has a latent issue: What is the health of the underlying organization? Companies that have a culture built on the fact that there is a kegerator or rocking out until the early hours of the morning are going to have a harder time finding older [employees] who fit, but this is just a symptom of a much bigger issue they will face as they scale. 

Organizations that have clear values that they can articulate will have an easier time screening candidates of any age.

For the older candidate, the question will be one of malleability: Are you going to acculturate to us or are you set in your ways?

Inc.: Can you provide an example from your career of a cultural mismatch at a startup?

Henrichs: I worked with one very seasoned executive who had worked with a number of startups but never one as rabid about breaking down hierarchy and promoting self-management as our company. As a by-product, we were also very transparent, so everyone had all the information they needed to make decisions and the authority to go make [things] happen. It was clear after two weeks that while he wanted to act that way, it stretched every fiber of how he operated. This didn’t make him a bad person-- e're still friends in fact--but it made us the wrong place for him and started pushing our culture in directions we didn’t want to go.

We quickly made the mutual decision that he was better off as an advisor. He landed a great role in a company that matched his style and we found someone [else] to fill the role who thrived in our soil.

Inc.: What interview questions can you ask to screen for cultural fit? 

Henrichs: Two of the most common concerns with older hires are:

1. Do you think you are always right because you have more experience?

2. Are you going to tell me what to do because you are older? Those are valid questions. The concerns exist for a reason. Addressing the issue head on, both in interviews and then the early interactions, is critical.

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Nov 30, 2013




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