Can a sucky interview be your key to success?

Prior to finding my career in HR and company culture, I tried out a lot of jobs.  A LOT.  One job I really liked was working as a matchmaker.  Setting people up on blind dates that is….not manufacturing matches to light a fire (you’d be surprised how often I had to clarify this point).  This was before internet dating and apps were popular and the company I worked for appealed to “busy professionals”.  Single clients completed a basic profile application, answering a variety of questions about themselves and their preferences, including hobbies and interests.  It didn’t take long for me to realize most people overstate their interests, activities, and hobbies in this process.  Hiking, rowing, sailing….it seemed that almost every client and potential client had the most active lifestyle on paper but in discussion would admit they rarely (if ever) engaged in these activities.  I found this so confusing.  Why would someone misrepresent their interests?  Later in life as my career progressed I found this behavior to also hold true and be equally as destructive in hiring.  In any type of interview environment, or when asked to describe ourselves objectively, we tend to describe the person we want to be rather than the person we are.  Both companies and job-seekers will often describe the workplace or person they aspire to be rather than who they actually are.  It’s then not a surprise that studies show 89% of turnover in the first 18 months of employment is typically due to a poor culture fit.  Turnover is estimated to cost companies 50%-150% of the position’s annual salary.  So, if you lost 10 employees this year with annual salaries averaging $40K each, your true turnover costs are likely somewhere between $200,000 and $600,000!  Anywhere from $178,000 to $534,000 of this cost is because in the hiring process you either failed to accurately represent your company’s culture, or candidates were disingenuous (and you’re failing to recognize it).  Neither applicants nor companies win when culture misconceptions happen.  Fortunately, both sides of the interview process can stop this cycle of dysfunction.  Here, are some tips that work!

 Steps for employers:

 1.  Define your culture.

What is your company culture?  If you’ve not gone through this process, it’s important to first understand what “company culture” means.  It’s not about looks, age, gender, or anything that your workplace might represent physically but instead, what underlying core values, characteristics, and motivations does your team share.  A good place to start if you’ve not defined your culture is having an informal chat with your most valuable employees to understand what matters most to them about their jobs.  What benefits or perks of the job do they most appreciate?  What keeps them motivated to show up everyday and kick butt?  How do they describe the workplace to friends and family?  What things do they most appreciate about their coworkers?  What do they dislike about the job or workplace?  There are great workshops and structured activities that can help you in this critical process, but don’t use that as a reason to delay.  Truthfully, you should have these discussions regularly within your company – at various levels.  Your culture isn’t something that just appears.  It’s what is created each day by every decision, change, hire, policy, and conversation.  It’s an experience, not a uniform.  An employee’s perspective both creates and is created by a company’s culture which is why it’s important to make them a part of this culture-defining process.  Leaders may guide and support culture, but all employees create it – so ask them about it rather than just assuming.

2.  Identify ways to test the culture-fit factor in job-seekers.

Now that you have identified some commonalities shared by your team, look for ways to test whether or not a job-seeker shares those values.  Here’s where you can get creative.  For example, Google, a company known to value out-of-the-box thinking (often to solve for complex problems) asks questions like “If you were a platypus stuck in a dumpster and your feet were made out of butter, how would escape?”.  There is no way to really fake creativity in this answer.  There is also no real “right” or “wrong” answer, although an answer lacking imagination is obviously wrong for Google.  Southwest Airlines calls on employees to have a “fun-LUVing attitude” and will sometimes asked flight attendant applicants “how do you keep the workplace fun?”.  Both are great examples of not just asking job seekers to describe themselves or traits consistent with your culture, but demonstrate them.  These questions give insight to the candidate’s mindset in an unexpected way that cannot be practiced or rehearsed.  Look for ways you can do the same in your interview process.

3.  Create a candidate experience that resembles your employee experience.

A few weeks ago I was talking with one of the original leaders to join Tuft & Needle, a Phoenix-based mattress company that has disrupted the industry.  I asked him about hiring during their intense growth, going from 80 employees to 140 employees in just one year.  He said it was at first an all-hands-on-deck, chaotic approach – lacking any structure, consistency, or strategy.  When I asked him about the culture during this phase, he described it similarly.  In this sense, T&N’s candidate experience was a success because it accurately resembled the culture that existed for employees (at that time).  If you’ve been part of a startup, you know it takes a certain type of grit to do well in such an environment, and perhaps a glutton for punishment to love it.  A person in a startup needs to be passionate and intensely focused on goals, yet extremely willing to switch gears when priorities change as they often do in such an environment.  So, if your company is going through a transitional period, does it make sense for the candidate-experience to be smooth and seamless?  Are you hiring for the company you are becoming or the company you are today?  Chances are, you need fill some critical positions today, so save candidates the frustration of feeling they’ve been victim to a bait-and-switch job offer and start exposing them to the experience as it actually is.  Is your workplace highly-competitive?  Then so should be the process you use to hire new employees.  If your company lacks structure, then so should your hiring process.  Companies will often gently guide candidates through the hiring and onboarding process, then dump this same person into an autonomous , sink-or-swim company culture, confused as-to why yesterday’s stellar job-seeker is today’s under-performing employee.  Keep in mind, as an employer, your goal is not simply to find applicants with the best skill sets and experience.  Your goal is to find the applicants that will transform into your best employees.  To find these gems, you need to observe them in the right environment that resembles your workplace.

Steps for job-seekers:

 1.  Research the culture before interviewing (or even applying).

Before you buy something, you likely research the online reviews.  Because most purchases will not impact us or demand as much from our lives as our jobs, it only makes sense we put as much, if not more, energy into learning about a company we may work for.  There are several places you can learn about a company’s culture.  Two of the most popular websites are Glassdoor and Indeed.com.  On Glassdoor, in addition to current and former employee reviews about working for the company, you can also learn from candidates about the company’s interview process.  Look not only at the company’s rating, but also the reviews.  What matters to one person may not be what matters to you, so keep an open mind.  Pay specific attention to trends.  Like most review systems, the unhappy customers (in this case, employees and candidates) are often the first to submit reviews.  If you aren’t able to get what you need from these job sites, try using LinkedIn to connect with existing or former company employees.  Many people are eager to talk about their experience.  In this approach, contrary to the feedback you’ll likely get from the job sites, you’ll tend to hear back from employees with a positive employee experience.

2.  Identify your goal for the interview.

An interview should be a get-to-know you, fact-finding mission.  It is not a process designed to help you overcome any professional insecurities you may have by “winning” a job.  All too often job-seekers fail to recognize that they too have a responsibility to choose a job in which they believe they can be successful and happy.  To decide whether or not you will do a job well and will be successful with a company, you need to first learn about that company. Ultimately, if the person conducting your interview is uncomfortable with your directness, perceiving you as “entitled” or challenging their authority, it’s likely not the job for you.  I still remember one of the first times I was challenged in an interview to be honest in a way that I feared may take me out of the running for the position (and I REALLY wanted this job).  The CFO asked me, “if I were to ask your current boss what feedback she’s received on you that you need to work on, what would she say?”.  In that moment I thought to myself, I could lie and give a fake, safe answer like “don’t be such a perfectionist” or “stop working such long hours”.  On the other hand, I could instead give her my honest answer, that I need to work on being abrupt with people because it gives them the impression that I don’t care.  My manager recently gave me this exact feedback and accurately pointed out that I put too much value in solving the employee’s problems and not enough value in listening to employee concerns.  The feedback was ugly and unflattering, but it was true.  Sweating and clenching my fists, afraid that I was kissing my dream job goodbye, I responded with the truth.  About a year later over drinks, because I did get that job, the CFO and I laughed about my answer.  She shared with me that she too struggled with a similar problem and felt it wasn’t a big deal so long as I was aware of it and working on it.  By being honest and genuine I was able to test the company’s willingness to develop and support employees.  It was a win for us both.

3.  Be authentic.

Recently we were contacted by the Huffington Post to give insight on their upcoming article “The First Thing You Should Do After You Walk Out of That Job Interview. Within the article, they discuss the effectiveness of post-job-interview follow-up, asking whether or not candidates following a job-interview should send a thank you note and how to do so without coming off as a kiss-up.  My advice was to be authentic.  Once you’ve researched and interviewed with a company, you should have enough information to decide if you and the company are a good match to move forward.  If you are the type of person to follow-up with a thank you note, send a thank you note.  If you are not however, or perhaps the company is not the type to appreciate such a gesture, perhaps it’s better to skip the sentiment.  You will be happiest and successful in the jobs that compliment you, and that’s not every job out there.  So, be genuine in your interactions with the company so that the interactions are uniquely “you”.  Although my advice to be authentic is not meant to encourage you, the job-seeker, to act as you do with friends at happy hour, you should be your genuine professional self.  I was never meant for a stuffy overly corporate job.  While an HR person at heart, my approach has always been non-traditional and direct.  Not everyone loves these qualities in their HR department so it was important that I found companies that valued these traits, allowing me to be happy and successful in my jobs.  The same goes for clients we support today as any productive, effective relationship ultimately comes down to a good culture fit.  A good company should reveal to applicants the true culture of the workplace (both good and bad).  Companies as well as candidates can make themselves out to be flawless during the interview process.  While this is highly unlikely, really consider what it means when a company or person sees themselves as without flaws.  Do you value perfection?  If this is not your thing, best to seek out a company and job where continuous improvement is valued, and imperfections are seen as opportunities for development.

The 4th and final step for both employers and job-seekers is to be relentless.  Tony Hsieh, founder of Zappos, an online clothing and shoe retailer known equally for their great customer service as they are a rewarding company culture, tells a story of having their core values tested.  Be humble is one of their 10 core values.  Years ago, they would often include the shuttle driver, responsible for shuttling traveling applicants to and from the airport and headquarter location, in their interview process.  They would ask the driver how the candidate treated him/her.  Hsieh recalls having to pass on some exceptionally smart, talented, experienced executive candidates because they failed to “be humble” in their interactions with the driver.  While they could’ve likely advanced the company at the time, Zappos and Hsieh were unwilling to compromise on their culture to do so.  Considering Amazon purchased Zappos for $847 million in 2009, their decision to preserve their culture above all else while challenging at times, proved to be the right decision.  If you are looking for a job or you are an employer looking for the right candidate, focus on the experience.  Mahatma Gandhi said, “action expresses priorities”.  A person may describe and even see himself a certain way, but how he responds to your hiring process is more telling.  Similarly, a company may have an impressive purpose, mission, vision and values statement, but how you feel when employed by them or interviewing with them is more indicative of their company culture than anything on paper.

 

Teresa Marzolph image

Teresa Marzolph is the Founder and Head People Strategist for Culture Engineered believing valued employees produce valuable results.   In her HR and culture career she’s helped both small businesses and large corporations attract, develop, and retain top industry talent.

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