Looking at someone’s education and background can be helpful when screening job candidates, but the best indicator of who’s the right fit can’t always be found on a résumé. Companies ranging from big names like Pinterest to small startups are conducting culture interviews to build cohesive teams that match the feel of the office–not just the job description.
“Relying on someone’s background can be very misleading; it doesn’t tell the whole story,” says Tara Kelly, CEO of the customer experience software provider SPLICE Software. “Our workplace is like a family, and we are always looking for someone who is the right fit.”
Culture interviews are part of the SPLICE hiring process, and the process starts with the job ad, which includes quotes from current employees about what it’s like to work at the company. Kelly says she hopes this added insight attracts the right applicants.
To measure commitment to the company, SPLICE has everyone fill out a one-page form. “It’s our version of what we want everyone’s résumé to look like,” says Kelly. “If they’re not happy to fill out our form, they’re probably not a fit.”
Once candidates demonstrate they’re qualified and capable of delivering what the company needs, they’re brought in for an interview. Kelly says it’s not the questions you ask; it’s the act of listening inside the answers. “How” questions tell more than those that start with “what,” and Kelly looks for clues that the candidates match the company’s core values:
“If you ask someone, ‘Are you afraid to fail?’ nobody says yes,” Kelly says. “Instead, we ask them to talk about what they’re most proud of and least proud of. We’re looking for a time when they took a chance and the feelings they had around it.”
Owning mistakes shows that the candidate isn’t afraid to make them. If they say they never want to make a mistake again, it’s a red flag. “You cannot guarantee you’ll never fail again unless you stop taking chances,” says Kelly.
One of SPLICE’s core values is that it always can be better. Kelly looks for candidates who tell stories of improving a process or making something better. She also looks for someone who is willing to admit mistakes, but who shares what she learned from them.
Another question asked at SPLICE is, “How do you spend your off time?” Kelly says she looks for someone who navigates the world from a place of curiosity.
“It can be anything,” she says. “Someone who says they spent the weekend installing patio stones shows that they’re willing to learn a new skill. You can train for most other skillsets, but people who are naturally curious are an asset.”
Stories that involve teamwork and a willingness to help others are other answers Kelly looks for. “It doesn’t matter how bright they are; if they’re not willing to help others, they’re not a good member of the team,” she says.
Kelly also likes to ask off-the-wall questions, such as “If you were to describe yourself as one of the elements–earth, air, fire, and water–which would it be?”
“Sometimes the flaky questions spark the most interesting answers,” she says.
Kelly loves to tell candidates that the company celebrates Pi Day on March 14, when everyone brings in their favorite pie.
“I ask, ‘What is your favorite pie?’” she says. “SPLICE offices have a big kitchen. Food is the heart of a family, and our employees are a work family. If the person isn’t excited to talk about and share food, they’re probably not a fit. And if they think blueberry crumble is pie, well . . . that tells a lot, too.”
Actions can also give insight into someone’s personality. Kelly likes to do a fun experiment where she drops her pen as she and the candidate are walking back to her office to see how he reacts: Does he stop and pick it up? Pretend not to notice?
She also changes the pace of the interview, firing questions quickly and then suddenly slowing things down.
“I want to see if they recognize the change and can adjust,” she says. “An interview is a pressure situation. While you can’t pin everything on a single answer, consistency throughout the process will give you a lot of information about their personality.”
See how you really sound when using these cliché answers to standard interview questions: