This article caps off what inadvertently became a short series on conducting interviews. I previously broke down some specific, observable qualities to use when evaluating software engineering candidate's skills and experience in the hope that it can make interviews more humane and equitable. But, we don't evaluate candidates purely on the merit of their skills. We also try to gauge what they'll be like to work with socially. Similar to the technical angle, candidates are often rejected with the nebulous and unhelpful justification that they are "not a culture fit". This reasoning is lazy, and employing it is an open invitation to let bias rule hiring decisions.
Know what you're looking for
The thing about searching for something is that you can't know if you've found it unless you know what you're looking for. That means to start, you have to define what your culture even is. There's a good chance that your company has some official language around that. And frankly, there's a good chance that doesn't help very much.
I'm going to pick on Microsoft for a minute, because I think they can handle it. Microsoft describes their corporate values as: growth mindset, customer obsessed, diverse and inclusive, one Microsoft, and making a difference. Cool. So, those are some words. I don't know how any of that should guide what I'm evaluating as an interviewer, or how I would evaluate it. For that matter, I don't know as a candidate if this is a place I could be at home.
Real culture is a set of common values and customs. No one is ever going to know your customs in advance. They just won't. Don't try to look for people who share your customs. That road leads to things like a hyper fixation on the particulars of agile ceremonies. It's not useful. Instead, work to identify your values. Literally, these are traits, qualities, and ideals that you value. These are actually relatively easy to evaluate, once you've done the work of identifying them.
How do you identify these values? Real answer? I don't know, exactly. You might be able to use those formal corporate value statements as a starting point. Pick them apart and see what goes into them. To use Microsoft as an example again: The expanded description of "growth mindset" talks about things like developing people's potential, learning from mistakes, challenging biases, curiosity, and setbacks as steps toward mastery. Honestly, that's all great. There's a lot there. Based on that, you might imagine the actual values could include things like curiosity, mentorship, learning, and improvement. And then you can of course just talk to people. Talk about what you like about your company/team/whatever. What you wish you were better at. Look at your group agreements. In particular, consider how you respond when things go wrong. Do you practice blameless retrospectives? Do you crunch or cut scope when projects are late? And then finally look at the criteria in performance or promotion evaluations. What behavior is consciously rewarded?
I hope when you go through that process you like what you find. If you don't, well, it's important to know that, too. That's not a problem you can correct through hiring, generally. (If "hiring" in your case means executive search committee then you do actually have an opportunity to make a major cultural impact with that decision Otherwise, hiring is the wrong tool for that job.) But you can start to carve out a better space for your team, and you can try to select people who can fare well until you get to that better space.
I'm sorry for that heading, I couldn't stop myself.
So, you've identified some of the values you hold and now you need to understand whether your candidates share them. Awesome, let's talk about it. I don't know what your values are, so I'm going to talk about some of mine. These aren't universal, but I also don't think they're rare. As you're interviewing the candidates, it's important to keep in mind that they don't actually need to personally share your team's or company's values. That would be preferable, but it's not necessary. What is necessary is that they're comfortable working within and respecting those values. Of course, the candidate could share your values. They could actively uphold and reinforce them. That would be great! I think this is what the phrase culture add—as opposed to culture fit—is meant to capture. Just don't make it a requirement that they do so. Even if someone shares your values themselves, they shouldn't have to push for it at work. It's good, even healthy, for people's jobs to just be jobs.
Everyone likes honesty, right? I mean, with very few exceptions people don't lie simply for the sake of lying. But that's not the same as being a value a person holds. Honesty as a value leads to transparency. It means knowing and communicating your limits. It means both a willingness to disagree and to hear disagreement. This kind of honesty builds trust, and trust is extremely valuable. At a personal level you can talk about times people have had to give or receive bad news, or had some conflict. But this is about team culture, not individual actions that were performed in different environments. It's at least as important to talk about techniques and practices to promote transparency and create an environment that welcomes honesty. Have they tried it before? Did they appreciate it? Are they excited to try it now, or can they offer suggestions?
Inclusion is about inviting participation. The word may conjure ideas related to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion™. It's certainly important to be inclusive with respect to making your company equitably diverse. But I actually mean this in a broader sense. It's about welcoming input. It's about giving and receiving feedback with grace. And yes, inclusion means examining and challenging our biases. For a member of a team, this means things like anticipating teammates needs, creating opportunities for others to share, or returning focus to them after they're interrupted. It should also come into play when you're prioritizing work or gathering requirements. The products we build should be accessible and provide safety tools. These should be first class features and core design considerations. We should care because the people who use our products are people, and we should care about people. In talking to a candidate, you can explore whether they recognize when people are excluded. Do they want to correct that? Do they know how? Do they relate to that experience?
Overwhelmingly, humans are innately curious. We want to know how to do things, how things work, how to use them, and how it all fits together in our world. Over time, we have bad experiences that teach us to be cautious and incurious. Within a team, curiosity leads learning, sharing, collaboration, and growth. It's tremendously beneficial. Curiosity can be fostered by making it safe to experiment, to learn, and to make mistakes. You can encourage, praise, and reward both learning and teaching. You can make knowledge accessible and discoverable, and invite others to contribute. In terms of interviewing a candidate, you can discuss strategies for doing those things. You can talk about making time and space for learning, without pressure to execute. Ask about finding balance between exploration vs instruction, and how to support both.
Compassion is ultimately about seeing people as people. In particular, seeing them as people who deserve safety, support, and respect. Compassion is expressed by volunteering support, and holding boundaries both for yourself and others. It promotes psychological safety. One of the most common and concrete ways compassion is demonstrated as a team is through blameless practices. This is an easy place to focus when evaluating a candidate. Do they have experience with blameless retros/culture? Do they understand the value of it? Can they speak to situations where blame is appropriate, when it's not, and how to react to each?