The timeless truth?  “Candidates are hired for skills and fired for fit.”

Everyone has a story of the clues they missed or chose to ignore and later regretted. Cultural mis-hires need not be repeated. Hiring the wrong person could cost up to 15 times their salary. Don’t let this happen to you!

Years ago, discussion beyond job duties was whether there would be overtime. You could learn something about culture in the interview process, but direct discussions about culture were few and far between.

I remember going to an interview and waiting long beyond the set time for the first meeting to start. For me, a fast moving environment was important. The long wait time was evidence enough of a mismatch. I politely excused myself.

The role I accepted at another company was an immediate match. I met five or six people in one day, including the CEO. I had an offer the next day. They respected that talent has options, even a twenty-something year old like me!


Trust is the foundation of companies with strong positive cultures. Every communication sets the stage. Remember back in the simple days? When choices were phone or in person interaction?

Today, add in text, email and other tools which can all help build trust over time, or, destroy it with one foul-toned email more quickly than ever. You have many people not even coming in to an office.

Culture is broad across a company and then specific to a boss.

Your boss is your direct culture. You quit one to join another.

The best recruiters learn about the hiring manager and company culture directly and indirectly, and then observe and evaluate each candidate for fit for that specific culture.  This goes far beyond the direct question, “Tell me about your culture.”  

Here’s how we learn about culture:

First hand experience:

Candidates often ask us how we would describe the culture of a company.  I’m confident in my response. We have so many touch points with the client before and during the search that we experience the company’s culture day to day, to know if it matches the stated culture.

The very first culture clue for us comes in the simple action of setting a call or meeting with a hiring manager. Did the hiring manager/hiring team provide some scheduling flexibility, or did they provide small windows of availability without any apology or graciousness about it? A sense of balance and respect for our time or others on the internal hiring team along with urgency to make a hire tells me a lot.  

Are emails sent at midnight because the search is a high priority, or is the broader picture that the culture is always a 24/7 environment?  

One potential client called and left a message. When I tried to call him back minutes later, he wasn’t available. When I followed up with an email to try to set a time, he was unresponsive to setting a time and just kept calling when I wasn’t available. Sounds trite, but this is a bad sign.

If these initial touch points aren’t positive for me, or I can’t sense whether the hiring manager and I can work together as a team to make a great hire, I don’t take the assignment.

For searches that move forward, I can then share with candidates my first hand experience of the client’s culture. The longer I’ve worked with a client, the more credible I can be. Candidates appreciate and expect me to provide realistic transparency about the culture.

Asking direct questions:

1) “Describe your culture”

I ask the question directly at the first in person meeting. One CEO shared that “Disorganization scares her.” I’m glad she shared that with me.  It was a clue to cultural fit and how any new person would earn or lack credibility with her.

2)  “Tell me about a time when someone who worked for you didn’t work out and why.”

Hiring managers are often surprised about this question. It’s a negative-sounding question, frank question, but it helps me uncover where the sour spots are. We can talk about sweet spots and kumbaya about working there, but tell me more about what’s sour and challenging.

Once a Division President told me his former CFO’s emails and correspondence were difficult to follow and had grammatical errors. I knew that candidates with less than nearly perfect communication skills wouldn’t be hired. The fine points matter in a hire.

3)  “What brought you to the company?”

People leave one boss/culture and join another. You’ll hear clues in the response to this question.

4) “What do your direct reports tell you about what they like and don’t like about working for you?”

It tells me if the hiring manager has open discussions with direct reports as well as the context.  If the hiring manager says something like, “I think they say….” I try to understand more about why the manager doesn’t know for sure.

5)  “What is the feedback frequency and method with the hiring manager, peers and direct reports?”

How often does the hiring manager meet with team members? How is status communicated? How often and by what means are strategic goals communicated from the top?

Communication from top to bottom and across organizations takes conscious hard work to get right. We’ve all heard that many an employee has felt alone and not part of a bigger purpose or mission due to lack of communication.

6)  “Tell me about how the new hire will work across the organization.”

Executives nearly always work cross-functionally to be successful. I want to learn about real or perceived silos or expected challenges with peers. Are they a tough crowd? How so?

Many calls about replacing a Financial Officer started out with, “Jen we need to replace our VP Finance, Divisional CFO etc. The person in the role just doesn’t understand our businesses and isn’t adding strategic, operational value. He/she was more of a pure accountant behind the desk.”

Learning about company culture and about a specific hiring manager’s “culture” requires significant time investment and keen observation skills. You should rarely need to say after parting ways with a hire, “That hire was the perfect match on paper, but just didn’t match our culture.”

Colosi Associates invests time to get to know potential clients until a clear, objective story emerges to share with potential candidates. We’re nearly 100% successful in our assignments as a result. You can be too, whether you engage an outside search firm or not!