Three Interview Questions That Don’t Gauge Cultural Fit

I saw this post on Twitter, The 3 Interview Questions You Should Ask to Instantly Gauge Fit. I got excited. Oh, maybe we do have questions that address cultural fit.

No such luck. More stupid irrelevant and hypothetical questions. I am so disappointed.

If you are a candidate and an interviewer asks you these questions in the guise of a conversation, you should be disappointed, too. What are they?

  1. What’s the most interesting thing about you that’s not on your resume?
  2. What’s the biggest misconception your coworkers have about you and why do they think that?
  3. What has to happen during the course of the day to make it a good one at work?

Let's review what corporate culture is: how people treat each other, what's rewarded, and what's okay to discuss. Do these questions address any of that? I don't see how. Do the questions address how a person can do the job at work? I don't see how.

Why would anyone ask these questions? (picture a short woman pulling out her hair.)

If you are a candidate, and you get these questions, here's how you might answer these questions:

1. For the most interesting question, turn it into a behavior-description answer. Take a small thing that was indicative of your collaboration or facilitation or leadership. Make it something you did not highlight on your resume. As an alternative, make it something you chose to learn.  “On my most recent project, let me tell you a story about how I facilitated <this thing>.” Or, “I really wanted to learn basket weaving. I know basket weaving isn't part of the job, but it's the learning part I wanted to highlight. Let me tell you how I learned.”

If you don't turn this into a behavior-description answer, you will flounder and not be able to answer.

2. For the most interesting question, do not talk about your piercings. Or the vacation in St. Barts. Or the fact that you are related to English royalty. None of those things are related to your ability to do the job. Again, you need to turn this into a behavior-description answer. (This is why this is such a terrible question. There is no work context here.)

Think about interesting situations at work. You know how politicians only answer how they want to answer? You can do the same thing. You don't have to answer the misconception question. You can say something like this: “Oh, I was in a project meeting. This is before we had a kanban board. No one knew the status of anything. Everyone was confused. It was like we were playing “telephone.” Finally, I said, “Let's all create stickies and put our tasks on the board and see where we are.” We were then able to create a picture of the project and move on from there.”

You have distracted the interviewer from the irrelevant question, and provided the interviewer with evidence that you are a smart person who can move a project along. You have provided a behavior-description answer to a mind-boggling question.

3. What has to happen to make a great day is a hypothetical question. What if you've been unemployed for a while and you just want a job, even if it's a horrible job? The problem is you can't say, “Going to work will be a great day.” You sound desperate. You can't say, “Being able to see my kid's concert is a great day,” or “Arriving at 7 am and leaving at 4pm is a great day.” You want to know what the cultural norms are here. You want to ask those questions. Maybe you want to work on an agile team, but your version of agile is different from what these people think agile is.

Depending on how much you want this job and where you are in the interviewing process, you have some options:

  • You might say, “I'd like to learn more about what you do and how I might fit before I try to answer this question. I don't know enough yet.”
  • You might say,”What problems are you trying to solve in the next 3 months? If I know that, I can answer this question better.”
  • You might say, “Tell me more about how agile/lean you are. I know how my last company worked. Every organization is different, and I want to make sure I know how you work, so I can explain what would be great for me.”
  • Review your cultural fit questions that you developed in What Culture Do You Want in a Job? and use one of those as an answer.

If you are an interviewer, don't be fooled by these questions. These questions don't tell you if the candidate can do the job or fits your culture. (Read Hiring Geeks That Fit or more on this blog.)

If you are a candidate, deflect these questions and use behavior-description answers and auditions.

The blog post is correct in one respect: the best interviews are good conversations. But, they are good conversations that help you determine if the person can do the work here, in this culture. That's why you ask about cultural fit.

All these misconceptions about cultural fit. I have got to get myself together and do an online workshop series about how to develop and ask questions about cultural fit.

4 thoughts on “Three Interview Questions That Don’t Gauge Cultural Fit”

  1. The question “What has to happen during the course of the day to make it a good one at work?” is what I call a “fluff question.” It’s really useless to the interviewer, and it’s easy for the interviewee to give an “expected response” answer, such as “I find a way to make money for the company.”

    It’s possible to turn this around, though, and make it a filter for an appropriate employment situation. For example, if you really value working in a team and don’t want to be stuck in a cubicle working solo, you could answer “collaborating with co-workers on a challenging problem.” If this answer turns off the interviewer, you probably didn’t want the job.

    1. George, you are right, it’s a fluff question 🙂 I love the way you turned it around and made it a great filtering question for what you want. Hehehe. I’m rubbing my hands in glee over here.

  2. The best questions I have for evaluating culture fit is “Tell me about the best team you have ever worked on. What made it so great?” It works fairly well, but it’s definitely not complete.

    1. Josh, that’s a great start. What’s nice about your question is that it is a behavior-description question. It also goes to how people treat each other, a specific piece of cultural fit. You can then see, “is that part of how we treat each other here?”

      That’s a great question to start a wonderful conversation.

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