Hiring the right people is a major pain point for many leaders. In fact, 32 percent of Inc. 500 CEOs say their biggest problem in the first year of business was a bad fit with either an employee (20 percent) or a partner (12 percent). I wrote recently about how to avoid a bad partner fit, but what about employee fit?

Two factors come into play with employee fit--skill and culture. Assessing skill should be the more straightforward of the two as you can rely on education, employment history, and personal references. If you use them. And you should. Even though references are handpicked by job seekers, they can help you uncover any red flags if you're astute about the questions you ask and really listen to the answers. Getting the skill part wrong is a bummer, but if you do, the signs are pretty evident. Your job then is to make a change in a timely way.

For whatever reason, employees who do not meet the needs of a job from a skills perspective seem easier for leaders to replace than employees who do not fit from a cultural perspective. We complicate the story, often because the skills fit is a match: It's hard to get rid of someone who is getting stuff done, whatever the cultural fallout. It's also likely that you can teach someone skills they're missing, whereas culture tends to be hardwired. So it becomes even more important to make smart decisions in this aspect of hiring.

So, here's a simple suggestion: To ensure cultural fit, hire based on your company's core values. It's simple, but that doesn't mean it's easy. It takes commitment. Not many companies I know of are committed to treating their core values as nonnegotiable, meaning that if you have a candidate who is a match on the skills front but not on values (culture), you do not hire that person.

Don't get confused here--as many organizations do--with other types of values:

  • Aspirational--nice to have but not true today; be honest about this
  • Permission-to-play--you need these to even get an interview; things like integrity and honesty often fall into this category
  • Accidental--things you're not intentionally seeking but seem to be present anyway

The key to core values is that there are only a few of them and they're uniquely inherent to the company. (For more on core values, check this out.)

If you know what your business's core values are, you can devise interview questions that tease them out. For example, one firm I know wanted to make sure it was attracting team players. So, instead of asking "How good are you at teamwork?" they asked prospective employees to "name all the members of your last team and tell us a personal detail about each of them." The assumption was that a true team player would know specifics about everyone on the team. It's much harder to fake an answer to this question than to talk generally about how you "really believe in being a team player."

Another example was from a plumbing company whose core values included a "jump in the ditch attitude," which means that you pitch in when needed--no matter what. To ensure employee fit they ask interviewees to "tell us about the last time you did something outside of your area and why." The key is not to let on that this is considered a good thing or a bad thing, providing potential employees with no clue on how to game the answer.

You can even use the interview process itself as a filtering tool for core values. If flexibility is a core value, try interrupting the interview a couple of times to change rooms and see how the candidate reacts. Another company I know has a core value of "hungry"--as in scrappy or willing to do whatever it takes for the work. They screen for that by turning away job seekers at least once--if not twice--before even considering them.

Employee fit can feel unruly, but if you spend the time to get crystal clear about what values make you successful and commit to using those values in hiring, you can get it right. And if you do, just think of all the time, money, and heartache you'll save.

Published on: Sep 4, 2014