Search Savvy: Defining culture

Aug 15, 2014

Is personality a window to culture when interviewing candidates?

It’s amazing how often the word “culture” is used in the recruiting process. More often than not, a candidate’s fit with, or should I say into, the culture of the hiring organization is ranked right up there with desired experience when discussing the optimal person for the job.

But, how do you determine a potential employee’s culture? It’s certainly not described on their résumé. For a candidate, such definition should be found in the position description.

The closest mention of culture in most position descriptions is all the various ways we describe a team player. Webster defines the noun “culture” as it applies to business as, “A way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization.” In the broader sense, Webster defines culture as, “The beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time.”

Some organizations try to quantify a candidate’s culture through testing. You may have been a participant in these cultural identification quizzes. Lots of questions in the form of “what if” or “are you most likely”. I’m not a fan of this process because most of us, as candidates, are not quite truthful in our answers. I don’t mean we lie outright. Rather, we are biased into thinking about what the hiring company wants to hear when giving our answer, which of course paints a somewhat different picture of our actual culture.

In recruiting and/or hiring, I believe a synonym for “culture” could be “personality”. This is not what Webster says, but here’s my reasoning: Hiring managers don’t usually ask the candidate to describe their personal culture. It would be very challenging to put into words your way of thinking, behaving, or working. Certainly, it would also be difficult for the hiring manager to describe the company’s culture. Culture is not something you can feel, see, or smell.

So why can personality become a substitute for culture during the recruiting process? Well, your personality is on exhibit at all times. It’s the attractive qualities (such as energy, friendliness, and humor) that make a person interesting or pleasant to be with – and that includes interviews. It’s in the level of confidence you display, the tone of your voice, or the way you dress. Do you appear nervous, was your handshake sweaty, how easily do you warm up to the interviewer or the candidate, and can you carry on a conversation? Hate to say it, but it’s defining the book by its cover. These are all outward traits of personality, not the inside cultural traits of beliefs, behavior, or thinking.

Ultimately, it all boils down to the candidate’s likeability. It goes both ways too! How much did the candidate like or dislike the interview process and the people representing the company. Did everyone in the office greet him/her as they passed by; how many people were smiling; what did the office environment look like? Or did most of the employees appear to be just waiting for the 5 p.m. bell?

Let’s face it, culture is important. A cultural fit between the employee and the company leads to a cohesive and well-oiled organization; a group of principles and beliefs that are harmonious. It’s the desire to be a “team player” and an attitude of what’s good for the company and not just for me. Culture is a way of behavior that permeates the organization; a belief that we are all in it together, and a method of working that promotes success.

Culture, whether it’s the organization’s employees or a candidate as a potential employee, directly impacts personality. Assuming I’m right, then the outward image of personality that can be seen or heard by the candidate and/or the interviewer is a strong indicator of culture. So, the next time you participate in an interview, whether as a candidate or the interviewer, ask all the questions that you want, but also pay strong attention to the outward signs of personality to gain insight into the inner culture. Pat McGee is the director of executive search consulting with ZweigWhite. Contact him at This article first appeared in The Zweig Letter (ISSN 1068-1310), issue #1068, originally published 8/18/2014. Copyright© 2014, ZweigWhite. All rights reserved.

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.