Dilbert on Cultural Fit

I’ve written before about hiring for cultural fit, and about the importance of prioritizing cultural fit over competence when hiring at startups. I started thinking about it again when I saw this Dilbert comic, because it pokes fun at the culture of startups and their propensity only to hire people who fit into them. But what are we talking about when we talk about cultural fit, anyway?

You’re probably familiar with some of the stereotypes around startup culture (free massages and dry cleaning, craft beer, cool art on the walls and dogs at the office, pulling all-nighters to ship on time) and the kinds of people who work at startups (according to Dilbert, “self-conscious hipster” types with “an earring and headphones.”) Stereotypes like these give you a picture of what startup culture might look like to an outsider, but they don’t reflect the intrinsic values that define startup cultures.

Gnip CEO Chris Moody explains this distinction really well when he talks about values vs. vibe. He defines values as “the guiding principles or code-of-conduct” that inform a company’s daily operations, whereas vibe is “the emotional side of the company … highly influenced by outside factors.” To figure out whether an aspect of your startup culture is a value, he says, try asking yourself these questions:

–      Is this aspect of the company important to our long-term success?

–      Does this aspect need to be maintained forever and is it sustainable?

–      Does this aspect apply to all areas of the company and to all employees?

–      Will establishing this aspect help us make important decisions in the future?

So, for example: riding your fixi to the office or playing foosball between coding sessions are vibes. Treating people with respect or being passionate about your work? Those are values.

Your company values should be clear, accessible, and pervasive – take, for example, Zappos’ 10 core values. Having clearly defined values is important because they drive your company culture, not the other way around. It’s also important when you’re hiring for cultural fit, because without clear company values you run the risk of making poor hiring decisions: hiring people because they look or act or talk like you, and not hiring people because they don’t.

Here’s an example: Businessweek says hiring managers are now asking candidates questions like, What’s your favorite movie? Or, What’s the last book you read for fun? If you’re asking interview questions like these at your startup, you need to make sure you’re screening for values and not for vibe. Just sharing your love of The Big Lebowski doesn’t make someone a good cultural fit for your company: in fact, it’s often the people who give unexpected answers who end up being your company’s most creative problem-solvers.

I chair the board of directors for the National Center for Women & IT (NCWIT), whose Entrepreneurial Alliance works with startups to help them recruit and retain more women in tech roles. There’s strong ROI for including more women on technical teams: women improve collective intelligence, make startups more capital-efficient, and bring the perspectives of half the population. But if you’re a “dude brew” startup, you may not even know why you don’t hire more technical women, and you might need help from NCWIT removing gender bias from its portfolio companies’ job ads.

Gnip recently told NCWIT that they added three women to its engineering team. They credited this in part because the VP of Engineering, Greg Greenstreet, attended every local women-in-tech networking event, recruited on campus, and talked to as many female candidates as possible. But fundamentally they succeeded in hiring more women because, like Etsy, they made diversity a value. Gnip assigned strategy, money, and resources to their recruiting efforts, and factored diversity into evaluations of cultural fit.

Every startup is going to have a company culture, by design or by default, so you might as well design yours with values that attract and keep the best possible talent. Once you’ve distinguished between your values and your vibe, hiring for cultural fit won’t just be easier; it will give you better – and likely more diverse – employees.

If you’re interested in more information about joining NCWIT’s group of startups, let me know.

  • One of the things I see sometimes — startups who think that brand and culture are the same thing. Culture happens as behind the scenes behavior. Day in and day out.

  • DaveJ

    This makes sense from a company perspective, but it sure seems like for the individual contributors, the “vibe” is in fact a “value.” If you dilute the vibe, your most passionate people may seek that vibe elsewhere. The distinction is really insightful but I’m not so sure you can separate it for the individuals. Thoughts?

    • I think you can. Everyone has their own “vibe” – the mistake is confusing values and vibe – and – more specifically – think that vibes are your actual values.

  • JohnB

    Very strong message. It seems that some large companies have this sort of identity crisis happening, as well, where people are afraid to be ‘uncool.’ and the golden clique of cool contains one or two who are the consummate Office Space type, holding ridiculous hours, and producing careless work. It’s like the boss is the only one impressed by that heels-off-the-ground David Blaine levitation trick everyone else has figured out.

  • Pat Clark

    Very true and so often overlooked. There’s an interesting post and video on Fast Company today about an Ad company in Turkey that used brain scans to measure excitement and passion as the key input to decide who would get an internship (503 applied, 5 got the internship). Its an novel approach though not sure how correlated the two will prove over time (applicant scan v. employee success). Here’s a link to the article and there’s a well-done 3 minute video that’s worth watching: http://www.fastcoexist.com/1682805/the-latest-job-interview-test-measuring-your-brain-waves. Who knows, in the not-too-distant future, maybe we’ll be giving brain scans to see who shares our company values and is a cultural fit as an additional evaluation tool?

  • These Gnip questions are the right questions to help differentiate the meaningful from the meaningless parts of a culture’s aspect. The topic of a Startup’s Culture is one of those that has been already figured out, in terms of cook-booking it. You can pretty much follow the examples of others (Netflix, HubSpot, Moz’s TAGFEE, etc..) and have your own.

    A couple of months ago, I did a lot of research on that topic, and wrote The Ultimate Guide to a Startup’s Culture, grouping the best practices and tips from the leaders that are doing it:

    And the accompanying Wiki Reference page has a curated collection of key links written on that topic.

    The making of a Culture in a startup could be epitomized by these 2 quotes:

    “You don’t create a culture. Culture happens.” — Jason Fried, 37Signals
    “Whether you like it or not, you’re going to have a culture. Why not create one you love?” — Dharmesh Shah, HubSpot

  • Nick Ambrose

    Totally agree.

    Sadly, it seems like many companies still haven’t got the message, and are hiring on “Checklists of specific skills” and are unwilling to even go past a phone-screen (or even to do a phone-screen)

    I learned this “by accident” when I had to hire in an area where there just weren’t people the specific skills for the job, and cultural fit/ability to adapt really did me well there.

    In fact, there came a point when a large company shut down a building and flooded the market with many people who on paper had the “right skills” for us. Me & my team spent a lot of time & energy interviewing, before realizing that it was futile, and we were better off doing it the way we had been.

  • ObjectMethodology.com

    “If you’re interested in more information about joining NCWIT’s group of startups, let me know.”
    Before anyone bothers to contact you. It would be good if you describe the process a bit. Given the way people view VC’s behavior towards entrepreneurs it might be good for them to know how *you* approach it. *I* know your desire to handle things properly but others might now.

    • I’m not sure I totally understand the comment. Just email me. I’ll connect you with the NCWIT folks.

      • ObjectMethodology.com

        I’ve contacted many VCs over the years and I’ve seen the same situation that you have blogged about. They don’t respond or they use a canned response or they have an assistant do it.
        So I thought you might want to help people feel more comfortable with contacting you by letting them know what to expect. You might for example tell them to contact you via email and they should get a response within 48 hours or whatever. It just seems like people are giving up due to being mistreated or ignored. And it might require some extra convincing to get them to take action.
        BTW… I follow your method of responding to every communication (I learned it from you).

        • Ah – I see. Most of the “expectation setting” I’ve seen is in the form of an autoresponder that says “I get to much email – don’t expect a timely response.”

          • ObjectMethodology.com

            Something that came to mind when I read your post is that it’s not just the idea of handling communications with respect for the person sending them. It’s also a matter of opportunity. How many of those are great opportunities? If a person ignores the communication then they may have just missed out on an opportunity.

  • Gerhard Apfelthaler

    Couldn’t agree more. I’ve been involved in a pharmaceutical start-up for a while now that started out with the mission to be a social business, based on great IP and a new business model. When we got to the manufacturing stage, the culture started to change. It took as almost two years to figure out that the manufacturing operates on a totally different set of values – precision, compliance, hierarchy, etc. while the social business side (mainly concerned with BD in developing countries and emerging markets) needs flexibility, openness, flat structures etc. Realizing that the two sets of values and the different people that come with it don’t fit under the same roof. We’re spinning one part out now.
    What I always found quite helpful is to use Hofstede’s cultural dimensions when thinking of a company’s culture. Yes, his framework was originally developed to compare national cultures, but his concepts of power distance, individualism, uncertainty avoidance and masculinity can easily be applied to organizations and can help in selecting the right people for cultural fit.

  • Totally agree.
    This is a dimension of management that is seriously overlooked in the whole ‘lean’ movement.

  • Nikki Braziel

    Another way I’ve heard it put is “Principles above personalities.” Thanks!

  • paularosch

    In the past several years I’ve begun to work more with companies who were start-ups 20-30 years ago, founded with social cause-driven values. Those who have not been bought out have turned to the hiring of former Fortune 500-type employees to help them achieve larger growth objectives (not criticizing the 500 people – I’m a former one myself). These new employees often embrace the vibe but are unaccustomed to the core values. This is very apparent in their communications, and creates a disconnect between the company and outsiders who have come to view it through the original lens. So the start-up hiring challenge exists with these companies as well – how to bring in new, talented employees whose nature express or is adaptable to the company culture, or who can help it evolve in ways that offer continuity.

  • I think it’s interesting that you hire for a specific culture, but then expect diversity in that culture. Maybe this is why the difference between vibe and values matters so much. Values can be universal across race, ethnicity, gender, etc, but vibe often isn’t as general.

    I have wondered recently if companies that are scaling can’t scale culture because they can’t find more people that fit that culture. So, they start to stretch what the culture is defined as in order to be able to hire more people. Eventually that catches up to them, but if they have the same values it can work out.

  • Funny enough, my love of the The Big Lebowski has helped throughout my career.

  • ErycEyl

    Thanks a ton for this post, Brad! Insightful and thought-provoking, per usual. As someone who has done a lot of work with organizational culture, including with start-ups, I share the concern for getting culture right — from the vibe (what Schein would’ve called the “artifacts” of culture) that is the tip of the iceberg to the values just above the surface to the unspoken rules and tacit assumptions in the murky, unseen depths. Cultural fit is one of the most important elements in hiring (the other two being ability and willingness), but as you point out, we have to look beneath the surface for real fit. Unfortunately, we can’t forget that “culture” starts with “cult,” and there will always be a certain degree of “cultishness” to organizations that only hire people who fit in superficial ways. In fact, I’d argue that, as much as we need to look for cultural fit, we also need to look for folks who have just the right LACK OF FIT that we need to move forward.

  • Mary Jesse

    Thanks Brad for your insight and raising awareness about this issue. I don’t hear many in the startup world recognize the fact that there is often a gap between environments startup ecosystems embrace (pub crawl, smoking cigars, poker night, general dude stuff…) and environments where women (and other diverse groups) might feel comfortable and included. We can’t get more women, girls and other under-represented groups into STEM and tech if it isn’t a place they where they feel they can thrive.

  • Kathy Gallup Keating

    Part of removing gender bias from the workplace first requires an acknowledgement that it exists. I’ve been a woman technology leader for a very long time and I’ve seen a great deal of bias. I can unequivocally say that it’s very difficult for a woman to champion this transformation from the inside.

    I would love to find more resources not just for the companies who recognize their need to remove this bias but also for the women already in these roles to find more effective ways to be a catalyst for change from the inside.

    Often companies have a culture problem simply because there is gender bias (unconscious or otherwise). Women might see the path to success paved through teamwork, collaboration, honesty and respect. While men might see the same path as being paved through ownership, driving results, empowerment and focus. In more male-dominated industries these more subtle but emperative values are often overlooked.

    I appreciate that you’ve addressed culture (values) and gender bias in the same breath. How successful can a company (and culture) be longer term if this imbalance continues to exist?

    • Stephanie Wanek

      Kathy: This is a terrific comment. NCWIT helps organizations, corporations, K12 groups and colleges, as well as startups, increase the meaningful participation of women in computing. Part of our work includes ways that technical women can be professionally supported, mentored, encouraged and advanced in corporate and startup environments. NCWIT also provides our member companies with tools and tips and best practices for all these aspects. It’s a complex and multi-faceted issue, but we have a deep library of research-based tools and resources that can help inform, educate and guide. Please email me at Stephanie(dot) Wanek(at)NCWIT.org. I’m happy to help! Stephanie