Putting culture at the top of the recruitment agenda

Kathryn Kendall

12/02/2018
Categories: Culture, HR

Speaking at our Client Winter Forum – the Employee Experience Hackathon – in February, I spoke to our guests about creating a positive company culture.

Central to that culture is recruitment; for better or for worse, your new recruits will affect your culture, so your culture must be the backbone of your recruitment strategy.

Three years ago, we dramatically overhauled the recruitment process at Benefex. The impact of the changes we have made has been marked, and can be seen by looking at employee attrition rates within the organisation.

Culture: our number one priority

Since making these changes, our overall employee turnover has fallen by 34% from where it was previously. Even more strikingly, the turnover of employees with less than six months’ service has fallen by a staggering 68%. It is clear that our new approach to how we recruit has made a real and tangible difference.

So what did we do? Well, the single biggest change that we made was that culture became our number one priority when hiring. What this means in practice is that we refused to make any compromises when it came to cultural alignment. If candidates did not tick our culture ‘must have’ boxes, they did not progress any further through the recruitment process.

Now, when a candidate applies to come and work at Benefex, after their initial CV and telephone screening, their first face-to-face interview will be with a member of our People team. This interview is solely focused on their ability to demonstrate the behaviours which make up our culture. Historically, we had started with a competency-based interview around the skills required for the job role. We have turned this on its head, and we have done so because we believe that while skills can be taught, behaviours cannot.

Cultural must-haves

At this first stage interview, candidates are asked to evidence examples of where they have demonstrated our must-have cultural behaviours. For example: everyone who comes to work at Benefex will need to be able to demonstrate a time when they have worked successfully across multiple teams. To be clear: this isn’t about ending up with a team of identikit Benefexers! We have a hugely diverse workforce, something which we know gives us strength. But there are certain ‘must haves’ when it comes to culture. If a candidate fails to tick any one of those boxes, they will progress no further through the process and won’t even end up meeting the hiring manager.

It can be hard to stick to these principles. We have all found ourselves in situations where we have met a candidate with seemingly the perfect – often shortage – skillset. In our heart of hearts, we have known that they weren’t going to be culturally aligned, but we have convinced ourselves that it will probably still be okay.

And every time, it isn’t. Every time, that hire will fail. Sometimes quickly, and sometimes more slowly… which can almost be more damaging, as those destructive behaviours start to ripple across teams and jeopardise the culture you have worked so hard to build up. Skills can be taught. Cultural alignment can’t. Compromise on culture at your peril.

Truly a two-way process

The second wholesale change we made was to ensure that our recruitment process was truly a two-way one. Many organisations say this, but in my experience, few really mean it. Typically, a ‘two-way’ recruitment process is one where the candidate might be given five minutes at the end of the interview to ask a handful of questions (which may or may not be answered honestly).

At Benefex, we really mean it. We absolutely ask candidates about themselves, but then we also devote an extended section of the first interview to telling them about what it’s really like to come and work with us. Like any organisation, there are loads of great things about working here, but we also have our challenges. We talk about these candidly, meaning that when individuals do choose to come and join us, they know exactly what it is that they’re getting.

Too often, interview panels sell the dream as opposed to the reality. What this means is that successful candidates arrive for Day 1 in their new role with a rose-tinted view… and are shocked to discover that what they’ve been told to expect isn’t quite what transpires.

The importance of trust and confidence

Such economies of truth can seriously impact on the psychological contract between employer and employee, and can even at this early stage affect the trust and confidence which one party has in the other. It is also highly likely to result in destructive behaviours, all of which will negatively impact upon your culture.

By being transparent from the start, employees truly understand the business that they’re joining, and are able to get off on the best possible foot from the moment they walk through the door.

The third thing we did was to involve far more people in the selection process. This might sound counterintuitive – surely by bringing more people in, we risk confusing matters – but in reality, we’ve found that the greater the number of people who meet a candidate, the greater our chances of finding someone who is culturally aligned with our business. It also minimises our own unconscious bias, and allows us to ensure we build a diverse workforce.

Never compromising on culture

As a minimum, every candidate progressing through to the point of selection will meet a minimum of four people. This will include a representative from the People team, the hiring manager, a team member from the department they are going to join – to allow them to have the chance to find out what it’s really like to work in that team, and also ask any of the questions they perhaps might not want to ask their prospective line manager – and finally one of our Board directors. The views of all those who have met the candidate will be collated, and if any one of these has major cultural concerns, the candidate will be ruled out. Like I said earlier: we never compromise on culture.

Finally, we do everything we can to break down the barriers. Interviews by their nature are not a particularly natural setting for us to see a candidate’s true personality and behaviours. With the vast majority of candidates suffering from interview nerves, the person who comes across at interview may be very different from the true person inside.

Informal conversations

To attempt to get around this, you will rarely find us interviewing in a stuffy meeting room. We will far more likely be sat on one of our sofas or out on the picnic bench we have in reception, chatting to candidates. We will also try and make those conversations as informal as possible, to truly get the best out of people.

We’ll then throw in some initiatives which are designed to break down barriers even further. Perhaps the most infamous of these is our legendary ‘Lego Test’. We won’t give away the details… but suffice to say it is more effective at helping candidates to relax and open up than any other part of our recruitment process. Doing something out of the ordinary can be a great way to let those true behaviours shine through.

So, there you have it: Recruitment and culture aren’t mutually exclusive; these are two entities, bound together by a simple fact: great people create a great culture. Watch this space tomorrow for more on creating a positive culture; and fixing a negative one.

For the second part of my presentation, I discussed culture in terms of business strategy, and how you can work to turn around negativity in your organisation. Read up on it here!

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