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Culture interviews: setting your team up for success

At Griffin, we are very big on deliberately designing the culture we want. We also want everyone who joins our team to feel empowered to succeed from day one!

Portrait of David Jarvis
David JarvisMonday 31 July 2023

At Griffin, we are very big on deliberately designing the culture we want.

We also want everyone who joins our team to feel empowered to succeed from day one!

That’s why the final stage of our hiring process is a structured culture interview, with the goal of helping us to not only understand if a candidate embodies our core values, but ensure that they get a deep understanding of what it takes to succeed in a high autonomy, high performance culture like ours.

Culture at Griffin is a living thing. And with this understanding, we actively consider what else a candidate brings to the table that excites us. We’re checking to see how this interacts with our existing culture and how our culture will change (even if only in subtle ways) with their addition. Particularly, where a candidate embodies a trait we’re enthusiastic about encouraging more of, we want to make sure the candidate is empowered to drive new value on the team and create impact.

This blog breaks down our approach to interviewing for culture, and hopefully offers some useful insights for companies who want to introduce a culture stage in their own hiring process.

Culture starts with core values

Most companies do values backwards. They draft a list of aspirational statements that sound good on their website and in their job ads, and then hope that the people they hire will conform to them. This doesn’t work, because every new person you hire already has their own values. That’s why we like the term “core values” - it emphasises that values aren’t something that can (or should) be abandoned or adopted depending on context: they’re foundational to who we are and how we work.

Your company values don’t exist independently of your people; your people’s values are your company values. Every new person you add to your team is ultimately going to end up shaping your company’s culture‍—‌for better or for worse‍—‌based on the values they bring in the door with them.

This is why hiring for core values is more than half the battle when it comes to deliberately building and scaling your culture. If you fail to hire consistently in a way that is aligned with your core values, you end up with a culture that is at odds with the one you claim to have‍—‌which is both misleading to the outside world and a cause of significant strain and cognitive dissonance within the company itself.

By contrast, when your core values are aligned with people joining the organisation, you can be confident that you’re not only hiring people who are a good fit for your existing culture, but that they will actively drive it in the right direction as the company grows.

Culture fit over social fit

A lot of us have been in a “culture interview” that was basically an informal chat or “banter session” (shudder) with potential teammates. This is fine, but it doesn’t actually test for anything except whether or not they like you, and favours personal preferences over objective assessment. Our approach is very different.

Our culture interview is designed to go well beyond checking if you fit in socially. It’s based around a structured set of questions that help us tease out certain traits while also going deep on the things that matter: what makes you happy and effective at work, your collaboration style, how do you take ownership, how do you manage feedback, what motivates you, what are your goals, how can we help you meet your goals and how do you deal with adversity etc.

The answers to the questions in the interview are the most important predictors of how well you’ll gel with your team and how we can help you succeed: a similar sense of humour or shared hobby is just a bonus.

Designing the culture interview

1. Setting your goals

A culture interview without clear goals is going to end up sliding back into “banter session” territory pretty quickly. Avoid this by defining exactly what you want to learn about the candidate, and what you want them to learn about your company! At Griffin, we want to:

  • Test for our core values. Our core values are trustworthiness, thoughtfulness, kindness, and resilience, so we are looking for positive indicators of these throughout the interview.
  • Dig deeper on orange flags. We don’t only consider culture at the end of the process‍—‌we’re looking for signs of potential misalignment on  culture fit throughout our hiring process. If previous interviewers have flagged any negative indicators up to this point, we want to look for more context and detail at this stage
  • Test for career alignment. Sometimes a candidate is a great fit for our culture, but a bad fit for the stage we’re at as a company. We use the culture interview to explore why the candidate is interested in the role and in Griffin specifically, and confirm that we can support their career goals.
  • Make clear how important our culture is to us. We are very passionate about our culture! A candidate who doesn’t resonate with this is probably not going to enjoy working at Griffin. We want you to love working here.

2. Choosing your interviewers

There are a few things to consider when putting together a panel of culture interviewers. At Griffin, it’s a given that the people leading the interview must be stellar representatives of our culture. Our culture interviewers are evangelists, not gatekeepers or critics.

Beyond that, we look for people who are good at listening and putting others at ease‍—‌plus strong empathy, insight, and self-awareness. Our culture interviewers promote a welcoming and inclusive environment where candidates feel comfortable expressing their true selves and values.

Diversity is also important when putting together a panel‍—‌both from a demographic and an organisational perspective. We always have two interviewers per culture interview, which helps us reduce bias and stay objective in a context that can often feel very subjective. We try to reduce bias further by making sure the two interviewers represent different demographics and work on different teams; this way, it’s less likely that they share the same biases or blindspots.

When setting up an interview, we choose interviewers who don’t sit on the team the candidate will potentially be joining. (For example, a candidate for a risk manager role might end up speaking to a marketing manager and a lead engineer.) This helps us make sure we’re hiring for core values consistently across the company and we don’t end up with cultural “silos” in different teams.

3. Designing (and refining) your questions

How do you “test” for kindness? How do you assess “resilience” or “trustworthiness” in an hour-long interview? When designing your questions, it’s useful to break those big concepts down into specific traits and behaviours.

For example, at Griffin, we think practising “kindness” at work means:

  • seeking rationale and context, instead of assuming ignorance or bad faith.
  • stepping up to support colleagues who may be struggling.
  • giving direct, honest, frequent feedback.

Once you have an understanding of how you think a core value manifests in a work setting, you can design scenario-based questions that give candidates an opportunity to demonstrate when/if they’ve exhibited those behaviours.

Some other things we’ve found useful as we’ve developed and refined our culture interview questions:

  • Consistency is important. We have a core set of questions for every culture interview and in general we don’t deviate too much from this. Consistency across interviews helps us assess how effective our questions are and identify areas where we can improve.
  • Give your interviewers room to dig. Asking the right follow-up questions is key, especially with quiet or nervous candidates. This is a skill that comes more naturally to some interviewers than others, so make sure your panel is supported with training/resources on this.
  • Expand your focus beyond work. People live their core values in all aspects of their life, so not all questions need to deal with work scenarios specifically. This is particularly helpful for more junior candidates who may not have a huge amount of work experience.
  • Include some fun questions! Culture interviews can get heavy sometimes, so it’s good to round things off with a few softballs.

4. Running the interview

  • Give lots of context upfront. People can have wildly different expectations of a culture interview. Some will be expecting an informal chat, others will have never heard of a culture interview before. Many will feel vulnerable, as being interviewed for “culture” can feel a lot more personal than being quizzed on your professional skills and experience! Set the candidate up for success by talking them through the purpose and structure of the interview up top, and giving them a chance to ask questions before you dive in.
  • Have one interviewer act as transcriber. At Griffin, one interviewer leads and the other transcribes the conversation. Yes, we could use transcription software for this, but we’ve found the transcriber often “listens” in a different way and picks on things the lead interviewer missed. Having a full transcript also helps us stay objective if there’s a disagreement about whether the candidate is a good fit.
  • Make it clear that there are no “trick” questions. A lot of people have been taught that interview questions about mistakes or weaknesses are actually traps and have pre-prepared answers for avoiding them (“my biggest flaw is that I’m a perfectionist who works too hard!”). But everyone has weaknesses, and an important part of our culture interview is ensuring that candidates can be honest about theirs.
  • Leave lots of time for the candidate to ask their own questions. Culture fit should be a two-way street! Plus, when a candidate really grills us, it’s usually a strong indicator that they’re as passionate about culture as we are and they are checking to see if we are a right fit too!

Wrapping it up

So far, our culture interview has been very successful; we have a very low miss rate for culture fit and candidates who’ve blown us away at the culture stage usually go on to have an outsized positive influence on their team and on Griffin as a whole.

This is down to the fact that we believe a culture interview should be structured, relevant, and designed to maximise objectivity and reduce bias as much as possible.

We expect our culture interview to evolve as we scale (much like our culture itself) and we’re always improving based on feedback from candidates who have been through the process.

If you try it out, let us know what you think!