Research has shown time and again that diverse teams are more effective. They tend to come up with more novel, innovative solutions to thorny problems, thanks to the variety of experiences and ways of thinking they represent.
Yet many companies, even those who understand the power of diversity, find themselves with a cookie-cutter culture and a largely homogeneous staff. Predominantly white, predominantly male, having gone straight from high school to a four-year university to the workforce with no detours into the military, Peace Corps, or other differentiating experiences.
One of the reasons this happens is the “culture fit” interview. As interviewers, we often fall into the trap of using the candidate’s likability as a proxy for fit. Like begets like, same begets same, and – oops! – we proceed to hire candidates who look, act, and think just like we do.
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Emily Best, founder and CEO of crowdfunding platform Seed and Spark, can relate. She describes the company’s overall decision-making as having “huge holes” in its early days due to an initial lack of diversity. “For the first several years we were a mostly white team. That was reflective of my social circle at the time, and also the broader startup community,” she says.
Having a lot in common with someone doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be able to build a healthy working relationship with them. At the same time, it’s important to remember that you can work effectively with people who have different educational backgrounds – or taste in movies.
The question is, then: if you stop using surface-level affinities to judge whether a candidate will be a good fit, what can you use? This is where the “values alignment” interview comes in.
The idea is simple. Instead of asking about hobbies and interests, interviewers ask questions that reveal whether the candidate’s values are aligned with the company’s values. If a candidate fits from a values perspective, there’s a good chance they’ll be able to work effectively with the rest of their team, regardless of differences in background or personality.
Hiring for values fit also helps ensure the company values aren’t just empty words emblazoned on a poster. It fosters a workplace where employees naturally live the values every day because they find them meaningful.
Eventually, Best and her team did away with culture fit interviews and began hiring for values fit instead. Atlassian made a similar transition a few years ago. Although we’re still not where we want to be, our teams are becoming more balanced along racial, gender, and generational lines. Seed and Spark has seen similar results. Moreover, Best attributes their accelerated growth over the past year to the diverse perspectives brought to bear on strategy and decision-making.
Dehomogenizing becomes harder the larger a company gets because you can only address it as fast as jobs open up. Values-based hiring helps nascent companies get off on the right foot, as proven by payroll and benefits provider Gusto, that incorporated values alignment into their hiring process from their start in 2012.
“This is always a part of our face-to-face interview,” says Danielle Mastrangle Brown, Gusto’s Chief People Officer. “It’s a structured program, and we train interviewers to make sure they’re asking the right questions before making a recommendation on the candidate.”
Because company values tend to have complex implications despite their simplistic feel, interviews need to probe beyond a surface-level understanding of them. Questions should explore how the values can come into conflict with each other, the boundaries around them, and times when they’re challenging to uphold.
For example, a candidate interviewing at Atlassian might be asked to describe a decision they made that proved unpopular, or how they process and incorporate feedback that is difficult to hear, which speaks to our “build with heart and balance” value. Values interviewers also receive guidance on how to evaluate a candidate’s responses as they make their hire/no-hire recommendation.
In order for this approach to succeed, those recommendations must be taken seriously. “We actually consider it the most important part of our process,” Mastrangle Brown adds. “No candidate gets through the hiring committee without completing this step.”
In this age of automated resume filtering and AI-assisted phone screening, there’s still plenty of room for humanity in the hiring process. But we need guardrails because, as humans, we’re fallible. Although it’s natural to prefer candidates that look like us and have similar interests, running on auto-pilot doesn’t cut it. We need to do better, both because it’s the right thing to do and because that’s how you create a culture that talented people from all walks of life will flock to.
“From [a candidate’s perspective], why would I go work for a company that didn’t confidently articulate their core values, then demonstrate how those values play out at every level of the organization?” says Best. “In a competitive market for talent, you want prospective employees to understand what they can expect.”
Mastrangle Brown agrees that investing in values alignment pays off. “Scaling your culture means not taking shortcuts,” she says. “When every person goes through a values alignment interview, you know you’re hiring the right team. Not just the first team you can get in the door.”
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