10 Questions to Help You Hire Better People

As a recruiter, how would you describe the culture at Apple, Microsoft, AT&T, or at your own organization? Being able to distill the essence of an organization’s culture into a few well-thought-out adjectives is worth a lot. Sometimes I ask a wide variety of people to come up with a few adjectives that describe a company and then use a tag cloud technology such as Wordle or TagCloud to generate a tag cloud map. This will give you a pretty good idea of how people feel about an organization’s culture.

For example, Apple might be described as perfectionist, controlling, modern, and demanding, while Microsoft might be described as Yuppie, Gen X, brash, or arrogant. IBM as stuffy, old school, traditional.

Customers form opinions about an organization from its brand image, its presentation and packaging of products and services, but most of all from their contact with employees.

We often call the collective personality of an organization its organizational culture.

Many recruiters recognize the value of understanding the organizational culture and finding people who are good fits for it. However, until the specific traits that make up this culture are articulated clearly, it is very hard to know who the right people are.

Taking the time to define and understand the talent philosophy of your organization will enhance your success and improve the productivity and retention of the people you hire.

While you and hiring managers may instinctively tend to hire people who act or think in ways that are compatible with your organization’s culture, we often make mistakes and even misjudge what the culture really demands. And hiring managers often hire people who reflect their own style rather than that of the organization. We all know how disruptive it can be to hire someone whose personal style is at odds with that of the rest of the team.

Employee Treatment Reflects Your Philosophy

One of the surest ways to begin defining your talent philosophy is to ask how employees are treated. Many organizations have evolved philosophies that are easy to understand. IBM had a philosophy of hiring young people, usually right after college, and promoting them internally after a rigorous internal development process. They hired for certain traits: people who wanted to have a career, who were eager to learn and continue studying, who were open to new opportunities, who were willing to wait for promotion, and who were going to play by the “rules” of IBM. Whether or not IBM hired deliberately for these traits I do not know, but they were certainly reflected in the kinds of people who stayed and who thrived there.

Other organizations have philosophies that are much more difficult to decipher either because they have not really defined a common philosophy or because they have many sub-cultures within the organization. This is particularly true of newer firms who have not yet had the time to evolve a distinct personality. But, even in these firms it is possible to see some basic traits that are emerging.

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What Is Real and What is Wish?

Frequently I work with organizations that have developed a talent philosophy that is attractive to candidates but not reflective or what they really do. It is often more a statement of what they want the philosophy to be rather than what it really is.

It may state how the organization is committed to employee development and internal promotion, yet they almost always hire new people from the outside. Or it may contain statements about work/life balance when in reality everyone works 60 hours a week.

A talent philosophy is very hard to create. It is generally an outcome of who has been hired over time and what those folks, collectively, believe, and how they act. It is very hard to change without the highest level of internal support.

Talent philosophies are complicated things. They are a mix of individual traits and a set of overarching beliefs and practices that usually have evolved over time. They are based on assumptions about how people behave or about what they want from the workplace. For example, it is typical to assume that everyone wants a long-term career when, increasingly, today’s young people want opportunities for advancement and learning and don’t care too much about a career in a single firm. Knowing what your assumptions are is essential for successfully defining your talent philosophy, yet it is very hard for those in an organization to determine those assumptions.

Very often it is necessary to bring in an outside consultant to help, but here are a few questions that you can use to help in the unraveling process. By setting up groups of people, maybe incorporating customers or others from outside the organization to help, and by trying to answer these questions in an unbiased way, you can make a good start at clearly defining what assumptions you are making and what critical traits new employees should have.

Ten Tough Questions to Answer

  1. What single characteristic is considered most important by hiring managers in a potential candidate?
  2. If there are two equally well-qualified candidates for a job, what determines the final choice?
  3. What are the personality styles, traits, and habits of those who get promoted or seem to be the most highly regarded in your organization?
  4. If an employee were asked what adjective most accurately described the best employees’ personalities, what word would they choose?
  5. If a customer were asked to describe the culture of your organization, what would they say?
  6. How do you deal with poor-performing employees?
  7. Who is considered the most valuable employee in your organization? What distinctive traits or characteristics does s/he have?
  8. How do major decisions get made? Are they made by consensus, a majority viewpoint, or a single person?
  9. What do you expect a good employee to have as general career aspirations?
  10. What does an employee have to do/demonstrate in order to be considered for a promotion?

A truly honest understanding of your assumptions about people and their careers and a solid analysis of what common traits employees should have will go miles in improving the quality of the candidates you bring to the table.

Kevin Wheeler is a globally known speaker, author, futurist, and consultant in talent management, human capital acquisition and learning & development. He has founded a number of organizations including the Future of Talent Institute, Global Learning Resources, Inc. and the Australasian Talent Conference, Ltd. He hosts Future of Talent Retreats in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. He writes frequently on LinkedIn, is a columnist for ERE.net, keynotes, and speaks at conferences and events globally, and advises firms on talent strategy. He has authored two books and hundreds of articles and white papers. He has a new book on recruiting that will be out in late summer of 2016. Prior to his current work, he had a 20+year corporate career in several San Francisco area tech and financial service firms. He has also been on the faculty of San Francisco State University and the University of San Francisco. He can be reached at kwheeler@futureoftalent.org.


8 Comments on “10 Questions to Help You Hire Better People

  1. I have always focused on the client environment and the drivers and beliefs of candidates and it has always proved beneficial to a better match between client and candidate
    Very good article

  2. Why few (if any) companies assess Culture when they assess candidate fit for hire. Few would argue with Kevin’s well-stated theme around the importance of corporate culture to making sound hiring decisions. Yet, few companies measure their culture and then measure their candidate’s alignment to that culture so that there is some objective way to assess which candidate fits the culture better, and by how much. So if organizations are serious about the things they measure (net revenue, monthly sales, shrink, EBITA, ROE), why don’t they measure culture fit?

    It turns out that in a previous life as a pointy-headed academic, I developed a measure of motivational culture that measured the answer to the question: “How do we get people to do the things that need to be done?” The Leadership Culture Survey put numbers to Roger Harrison’s 1972 HBR culture factors of: Mission, Support, Rules, and Power. My research in the mid 80s found that a simple index of (Mission+Support)-Power captured about about 50% (R=.71) of the differences in competitive success of a wide sample of firms. So why isn’t it (or something else) used in making hiring decisions?

    First, as Kevin points out, many companies lack a uniform, dominant culture. Apple, Google, and Netflix are the exceptions, and even they likely have sub-cultures within a dominant culture. There may be a strong, overall, Google culture but that could differ in the Google facilities maintenance group (possibly outsourced) or the Google Revenue Accounting department (probably not outsourced). Most other companies are a patchwork collection of cultures that depend to some large degree on the leadership of the sub-group within the corporation (or corporate holding group).

    Second, and more problematic for those who want to see culture play a bigger role in hiring, most people want the same culture. Whether in China, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, or North America,– the Ideal culture (measured on the Leadership Culture Survey) differs only slightly— high on a shared Mission and Support for the Mission, low on Personal Power (who likes being tossed on the whim of personal preferences?), with some moderate degree of regulation depending on the saftey consequences of mistakes. So the “wished for” culture is pretty similar. The actual culture differs widely, and is not so great in China across the electronic manufacturing organizations studied there. The ones that made your iPhone and iPad, along with lots of other things.

    So what measure of personal culture can be compared to what measure of company culture to assess the fit vs. gap? Most people can align themselves nicely with a culture that has a customer-focused mission that the workforce can share, that provides the means to support that mission, that adopts regulations needed to prevent disasters and that ropes in abuses of personal power. The real opportunity lies for organizations that depart from these best practices. They are the ones that need to check out candidates for their ability to tolerate a confusing or distateful mission, inadequate support for accomplishing corporate goals, too much or too little regulation and widespread abuses of personal power. Now let me just check to see who is in the line-up to include those kinds of questions in their behavioral interviews. Hmmm. Short line.

  3. Thanks, Kevin. An interesting and informative article. To quote a very dysfunctional lower-level manager: ” “Whenever I hear [the word] ‘ corporate culture’… I remove the safety from my Browning!”

    Corporate Culture to me means the people that that the founders hire: either because they’re like the founders, or the ones their founders like. For example: I worked for a major company (and you folks may have, too) which was founded by major “Aspies” (the friendly term for those with Asperger’s Syndrome) who like to hire friendly, outgoing, perky individuals, and where diversity was defined as:”we hire all kinds of upper-middle class, mainly white people, just like us!”.

    I think the next few years will allow an especially easy time to establish preferred (if not
    functional) corporate cultures. This is because of the great number of Gen Y/Millennials- the largest cohort in history of individuals entering the work force, and entering in a time of lingering high unemployment and economic uncertainties. These factors should help to subdue the high workplace aspirations of the supposedly pampered Gen Ys and enable employers to obtain a docile and loyal workforce “ready to drink the Koolaid”, at least until things pick up again in earnest….


    Keith “Cherry, Grape, or Orange?” Halperin

  4. Very interestinng ang thought-provoking article, Kevin. You hit the nail on the head when you discussed the difference between many company’s professed and actual company cultures. I have been both a corporate and agency recruiter for many firms, both large and small for my whole career, and I find it fascinating that there is often such a great divide between what managers and executives will tell you that their company culture is and how the company actually behaves with regard to hiring and managing its employees.

    I suggest asking questions like the 10 questions above to both the hiring managers and non-management employees of the company, to get a more balanced and relistic viewpoint. Also, a great recruiter needs to be able to read between the lines and figure out what is not overtly said about the company culture, in order to discern the REAL company culture. They need to assess how the company is actually treating its applicants, and what traits are valued and discounted in resumes and applicants for that firm.

    This is just one measure of why recruiting requires experience, business, organization and people savvy, and a great recruiter is not just a new grad with social media skills or someone who can use an ATS or Monster to source resumes.

  5. Thank you for not only another thought provoking article, but for adding arrows to my quiver (in the form of the “ten tough questions”) as I am in the process of interviewing companies.

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