Cultural Interviewing 101 – Figuring out Who You Are and Who is a “Fit”

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Regardless of what your title is, you’ve heard it before: “[the candidate] has every skill we are looking for, but he or she just isn’t a cultural fit”. This usually occurs sometime after you have interviewed the 52nd person for the role, and before you pull your hair out! Hopefully that is a slight exaggeration, but you get the point.

What do they mean by “fit” anyway?

Company culture is not a new term, but in this increasingly competitive job market, it has become just as important (if not more) than the hard skills that candidates possess. You might find the person who can do the job, but will everyone else on the team dread working with the person?

According to, company culture is defined as “the beliefs and behaviors that determine how a company’s employees and management interact and handle outside business transactions. Often, corporate culture is implied, not expressly defined, and develops organically over time from the cumulative traits of the people the company hires. A company’s culture will be reflected in its dress code, business hours, office setup, employee benefits, turnover, hiring decisions, treatment of clients, client satisfaction and every other aspect of operations.”

Wait – What is Our Culture?

Before we go any further, do you have a clear definition of what your company’s (or your client company’s) culture is? Can you use 5 words to describe it? A Tech Startup and an Investment Banking firm are likely to have two ENTIRELY different cultural standards. Why?

The first item at hand is to determine what makes the best employees tick:

  • What personality traits do they have?
  • What motivates them?
  • What is their attitude like?
  • How did they grow up (values)?
  • What are their priorities?

What combination of these traits among the employees make up the culture? For more on this topic, read my article on Unconscious Bias – How to Identify and Address it in the Workplace.

How You Can Easily Determine Cultural Fit



Once you have determined the core values and culture of your organization/client organization, what should you ask any potential candidates that want to be part of your little slice of the universe?

You need to ask a combination of functional, or skills-based questions, along with cultural questions. The person can possess all of the skills you need, but be impossible to work with. I have done a lot of reading and research on this topic and one sentence really resonated with me: “be sure to dig into things your candidates internalized before they hit the traditional workforce”. It’s true – character and work ethic is developed early. Some examples that may seem irrelevant to a candidate can expose a great deal about the type of employee they will be.

Whether the person delivered papers, was a dog walker, a babysitter, or cut grass, the experiences they gained and the lessons they learned helped to form the work ethic they possess today. As a personal example, I started babysitting at around 11 years old, and had a small babysitting enterprise in our neighborhood well after I had landed a traditional teenage job (at the mall). What did that teach me? It taught be to be able to manage “clients” and the ability to control how much money I was earning at a young age. More babysitting with different families = more money. I even had “substitute” babysitters for days that I had a scheduling conflict. I had NOT discovered the whole subcontracting model yet – it was a referral network. Too bad. I was in demand because I was dependable, on time, and I just plain loved being with the kids!

Others have told me about how they were fired from their paper route, how they kicked in a door when they were collecting money for the paper and their parents had to buy the customer a new storm door (yes, sadly, this was a real story), or how they charged certain customers more for the same products. Hmmm – can you see the red flag

Some Favorite Questions

Now to the nitty gritty, the actual questions to ask for Cultural Fit. They are not complex, but can divulge the answers that you are looking for if you let them.

Here it goes:

What motivates you to come to work every day?

  • This question can tell SOOOO much! Does this person possess internal energy? Are they money motivated? Do they love to be busy? Do they possess intellectual curiosity? Are they a progressive thinker? People that tell you they have a desire to learn and better themselves everyday are going to be your “A” players. They will be the individuals that stay up on the trends, that come up with ideas, that move mountains!

What is one thing you believe in that most people do not?

  • I have read that the Peter Thiel (the founder of PayPal and serial investor) asks all hires. Why? Because this is a perfect stage to articulate independent thinking. There is no right answer (perhaps there is to Peter Thiel), but the ability to articulate your thought process speaks volumes about your intellect and the belief itself reflects your character.

Give me an example of a time when you didn’t know something. What did you do about it?

  • This provides some insight into the person’s problem-solving abilities. We are all going to be faced with situations where we don’t know the answer. Do we shrug it off and move on? Or do we research, ask questions, and problem solve to get the answers we need? How fast can this candidate get up to speed?

What does teamwork mean to you?

  • This is a great question to decipher how a person wants to work. Another spin on it would be “What is an ideal teamwork setting”? Based on the candidate’s response, you can determine if he or she will work well with your team and how the person would like to be managed. You can also ask this question in a small group setting and let the candidate’s peers dictate whether or not they like the person’s approach to teamwork.

What do you do in your free time that your resume doesn’t describe?

  • This is a great question to delve into how broad the candidate’s interests are. It can also indicate commitment, dedication, and overcoming adversity.


The interviewing process is not an exact science – though many people wish it were! It is complex, time consuming, and emotional. We are often elated when we find the perfect hire, or disappointed and frustrated when we can’t find our “cultural match”. The first step to the process is understanding what makes up the company culture. From there, finding others who “mesh” is critical for success in any business.  For more examples of interview questions, download our comprehensive Behavioral Interview Guide.


Cultural Interviewing


by Natalie Lemons

Natalie Lemons is the Founder and President of Resilience Group, LLC, and The Resilient Recruiter and Co-Founder of Need a New Gig. She specializes in the area of Executive Search and services a diverse group of national and international companies, focusing on mid to upper-level management searches in a variety of industries. For more articles like this, follow her blog.  Resilient Recruiter is an Amazon Associate.


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