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An organization’s culture is not something you can simply read about and master.  This is especially true for executive recruiters and candidates.

interview questions

Understanding the organization’s culture plays a critical role in determining whether a candidate succeeds in her or his new job.

The culture is so much more than a set of framed and widely displayed corporate values or, in some cases, even the CEOs assessment of what it is.  If asked, the CEO will typically tell the candidate what he wants the culture to be, or what he imagines it to be, but there is no guarantee that his assessment is accurate.

That understanding an organization’s culture is such a critical determinant of a new employee’s success or failure makes the lack of attention to this subject during the interview process so odd.  Yet, many of the executives and managers who fail to make it to the two-year employment mark reported that they did not ask interview questions about culture, political alliances (read: sacred cows) or how things get done on a day-to-day basis.  Moreover, and surprisingly, many search firms and their corporate clients do not address this important employment dimension at all, or only briefly, leaving it to the candidate to sort it out.  This all too often results in a self-inflicted career wound that could have easily been avoided.

There should be plenty of time in the four or five interviews an executive candidate usually undergoes in the recruitment process to ask a variety of questions on this subject.  Don’t be shy.

Here are my thoughts on what employers and their recruiters should do to avoid, or at least reduce, the chance for mis-hires:

  • Be sure that the culture and values — the published and unpublished ones — are thoroughly discussed in job summaries and in the interviewing process.  Insist that the search firm address these in detail with candidates during their screening and selection process.  Employers should not assume that the search firm experts will do so
  • Develop a series of interview questions that designated members of the interview team should ask the candidate.  Create hypothetical or “what if” questions that focus on key aspects of the company’s culture, the leadership style of the supervisor, or any number of sensitive political issues
  • Candidates must do their homework, asking questions about how decisions are made – what are acceptable or unacceptable practices for team celebrations, for example.  One excellent leader I know was bounced from an organization because his supervisor(s) did not like the fact that he hosted a holiday reception at a local restaurant for his team to thank them for their effort in turning the hospital around, or that he told the team that he loved them for their hard work after a particularly tough week for the organization.  I know this sounds petty, but sillier missteps have resulted in terminations.  These questions do not have to be asked in panel interviews but there should be ample time with the supervisor to touch on these types of issues

Every organization, from leading diagnostic medical centers to small town public hospitals have what I call a Good, a Bad and an Ugly profile, that is to say they all have wonderful qualities and they all have some warts.  If you don’t ask, you will probably not be told, and if you stumble badly over one of these issues, it could prove to be career limiting, at least with that organization.