Cultural Fit Just as Important as Qualifications in New Hires

Ann All

As someone who watched way too much TV in her formative years, I tend to draw parallels between sitcoms and real life. The more I learn about Zappos, the more I think of the online retailer as Marcia Brady. Thanks to all of the fawning media coverage, I expect many companies are starting to identify with Jan Brady.


You know: "Oh, I remember Zappos (Marsha). Best customer service experience (student) I ever had!" "Are you as good a company (cheerleader) as Zappos (your sister Marsha)?" It seems like Zappos can't do anything wrong, so other companies may feel resentful, wondering why people can't focus on some of their good qualities instead of always going on about Zappos, Zappos, Zappos. (Kind of makes you want to hit Zappos in the nose with a football, doesn't it?)


I'm as guilty as the next writer. Good customer service is so unusual that we tend to lavish the companies that offer it with lots of attention. Customer service is the key to Zappos' business, and company culture is the key to customer service. So it's stressed from the time a potential hire comes in for an interview. In January I wrote about companies that focus on cultural fit in their interviews, mentioning Zappos as one example and sharing snippets of a New York Times interview with Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh.


At Zappos, candidates undergo two separate sets of interviews, one in which a hiring manager and his or her team interviews for fit within the team, relevant experience, technical ability and other job-related skills, and a second conducted by human resources designed solely to examine broader cultural fit. In the second interview, candidates are asked questions that align with each of the company's 10 core values. Zappos is "willing to hire and fire people based on those values, regardless of their individual job performance," said Hsieh in the interview.


Because one of Zappos' core values (one that gets written about a lot) is "create fun and a little weirdness," candidates are asked to rank their weirdness on a scale of one to 10. Said Hsieh:

If you're a one, you're probably a little bit too strait-laced for us. If you're a 10, you might be too psychotic for us. It's not so much the number; it's more seeing how candidates react to a question. Because our whole belief is that everyone is a little weird somehow, so it's really more just a fun way of saying that we really recognize and celebrate each person's individuality, and we want their true personalities to shine in the workplace environment, whether it's with co-workers or when talking with customers.

I can almost envision the eye rolls and excuses from some folks reading this. "That might work for Zappos, but we're in a more conservative industry. We don't want our people to be weird." But it's not about copying Zappos and finding candidates with a certain degree of weirdness. It's about finding candidates who will perform well in your company's culture, whatever that culture may be.


Meridee Moore, founder of hedge fund Watershed Asset Management, provided some interesting insights on hiring in her recent interview with the New York Times' Adam Bryant (the same guy who interviewed Hsieh). At Watershed Asset Management, the ability to make good decisions is the key to the company's business. So Moore likes to hire candidates who have experienced a setback and recovered from it. She explained:

I think it helps you make better decisions. There's nothing better for sharpening your ability to predict outcomes than living through some period when things went wrong. You learn that events aren't in your control and no matter how smart you are and how hard you work, you have to anticipate things that can go against you.

The company also administers a two-hour test to potential hires, which is difficult by design. Said Moore:

We try to simulate a real office experience by giving them an investment idea and the raw material, the annual report, some documents, and then we tell them where the securities prices are. We say: "Here's a calculator, a pencil and a sandwich. We'll be back in two hours." If an analyst comes in there and just attacks the project with relish, that's a good sign.

After the test, Moore likes to ask basic questions about the possible investment, seeking information about the company's revenue model, its customers and its products. If interviewees avoid those questions and prefer to discuss their calculations, they may be "too rigid' for Watershed Asset Management's culture, said Moore. Another question she likes to ask is whether the person has ever been in a wedding party. That seems pretty far afield from what investment analysts do, but she said:

If someone has asked them to stand next to him on the most important day of his life, at least one person thinks they are responsible. It means they've been able to establish and continue a relationship. It's not always true, but if you build strong relationships with people, you tend to go into a management meeting or a negotiation and come out of it with some respect. You go into it thinking: "I'm going to leave this situation better than I found it. I don't have to kill everybody to get to the right result for myself." These are good qualities in a person and a partner.

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