Recruiting for Cultural Values in Small Businesses

A lot of time is spent by large organisations talking about the importance of their cultural identity, and of people joining fitting the cultural mould, but the truth is that the smaller the company the more important cultural issues become.

There are two sides to this coin:

A successful organisation can be destabilised and undermined by a disruptive influence, with the impact far greater in a smaller team. Any new hire potentially skews the cultural dynamic enormously. If they clash with the existing culture they can negatively affect not only themselves, but the rest of the company, leading to poor communication, conflict, waste and reduced productivity. Conversely someone ‘on the same wavelength’ will fit in more easily, get up to speed faster and produce to optimum efficiency more quickly.

In contrast whilst the cultural impact of someone out of step can be negative, it can also be a huge benefit. If your team had become lethargic and conservative, the injection of new blood could, after a period of storming and forming, lead to a reinvigorated culture and revitalised team. This is the central concept behind diversity, drawing a spread of ideas and cultural approaches to the table.  

In either case the impact is potentially enormous, and only made more so by the limited scale of the company. Indeed in twenty years of recruitment I’ve always maintained that 50% of a successful hire is about their skills and experience, the other half is cultural.

If this is the case what do smaller organisations need to do to compete with the big players with their established values and PR statements?

Identify your culture

The first step is to know what you have. Now this might seem obvious, but don’t take it for granted. In over 80% of companies we’ve reviewed the vision, goals and culture stated by the board etc, have not been reflected when the staff are questioned. Of course there is usually some correlation, but it’s rarely the same. But that’s okay, the vision and goals can be seen as aspirational, nevertheless it’s important to understand what the real picture is. This is best done by openly asking for feedback, possibly anonymously to avoid both nervousness and sycophancy. A good approach is to ask your people for the three words they think best embody the company from a variety of perspectives, for example:

  • Goal
  • Approach
  • Effectiveness
  • Management style
  • Cultural feel
  • Best things
  • Worst things

Word maps are a great way to visually present this feedback. They display all the words stated by the respondents, with the size of font reflecting the frequency people used that word. Instantly you will create a clear picture of how the employees of the company feel about and perceive the organisation, with perhaps three or four keywords leaping off the page, far larger than the rest. This is your true cultural blueprint. If this matches the aspirations of the board then great, if not it informs where efforts need to be made.

Test your candidates

As for recruitment, once you have clarity on where you are it becomes relatively simple. Assessments can be structured around the desired cultural characteristics, whether they are to fit in with or challenge the status quo. This can take a number of methods:

  • Assessment Centres – Usually for large scale hiring, test cases can be set up which clearly identify who has the desirable characteristics
  • Interviews – Candidates can be asked to give clear examples of where they have exemplified the relevant behaviours
  • Psychometrics – Tests exist which focus entirely on cultural elements, using a ‘baseline’ drawn from current cultural norms
  • Testing – Example questions can be given where the candidate needs to describe how they would deal with a ‘cultural’ issue, notably one where there is no obvious wrong answer. The response they give can be compared to a number of ‘base line’ answers provided by current team members in response to the same question

The correct use of one or more of these methods, compared to the existing cultural norm, will allow you to identify who will fit in with the current culture, who will push it in new directions and who will clash and cause disruption. As a result you will be able to create and nurture supportive, effective yet challenging and dynamic teams that will enhance any organisation, but particularly a smaller one, making it a great place to be for all concerned.


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