How do you hire for culture?

Bob Sutton wrote bravely about the No Asshole Rule, and how talent should never excuse destructive behavior. It’s a rule many companies are afraid to follow and they pay later. By the time leaders realize there’s something broken in the culture, it’s hard to fix. Avoiding assholes is certainly progress for some companies, but but that’s not enough to create a great place to work.

One of the amazing things about my experience at, and a theme in my next book, was the common good habits everyone had: generosity, thoughtfulness and craftsmanship. Matt Mullenweg and Toni Schnieder, the leaders at, put the culture and its values ahead of many considerations. Great cultures have a higher bar and to both start and grow good ones requires sacrifices many impatient CEOs aren’t willing to make.

Jason Cohen, founder of  WPEngine wrote this recently:

You can train someone how DNS works, but you can’t train someone to naturally have empathy for a customer.  You can train someone with specific ways to interact with an irate customer, but you can’t train someone to genuinely care about helping that irate customer. At some point along the way, we’ll make a mistake, and it’s our responsibility to handle it with humility…You can train skills, but you can’t train attitude, and the attitude is going to make the real difference in that situation.

…If you can’t train attitude, then you have to hire for attitude.

Hiring for culture is harder than hiring for skill. To hire for culture you first have to understand the culture you have, which is difficult since you’ve always been in it and likely don’t see it for what it is. What you think your culture is and what it really is might be very different. And even if you’re clear on your culture’s values, you have to be willing to say no to talented candidates for reasons beyond talent. And perhaps hardest of all, you have to find ways during an interview to assess a candidate’s values, which is much harder than assessing their talents.

A common shortcut is evaluating candidates based on the question “Is this someone I’d want to work with everyday?” That question is packed with many implicit values the culture you work in already contains. However following that too closely has problems too. It can lead to stagnation, or even discrimination. Organizations need people with different attitudes to stimulate growth. No matter how healthy a culture is eventually there are powerful defenders of the status quo. It takes a new coworker with fresh perspective to show  how stagnant you’ve become. Part of what keeps all cultures healthy is the introduction of new people, ideas and assumptions. As companies grow keeping the right balance is hard to do. You need to protect what you have, but continue to plant new kinds of seeds.

How do you hire for culture?

8 Responses to “How do you hire for culture?”

  1. Mark Root-Wiley

    Great question, Scott. I appreciate that you acknowledge the possible shortfalls (and short-sightedness?) of only hiring people who “you want to work with.”

    Reading this reminded me immediately of this recent blog post about “What Your Culture Really Says” ( that critiques a lot of common startup “cultures.”

    In reading it, I was wondering how many of the critiques might be relevant to Automattic.

    1. Scott

      Thanks Mark. I read Shanley’s post the other day. I just now posted some brief thoughts on it.

  2. Bruce

    Scott, I used to use the hypothetical test of whether, when entering a lunchroom where this person was seated alone, would I choose to join them or whether I would start a new table by myself.

    The question forced me to consider the question whether eating lunch with that person would result in me gaining some new insight on my business — would I be able to learn something new and relevant without having to endure interpersonal torture and/or the smell of egg salad sandwiches (my personal phobia).

    1. Scott

      Bruce: How could you know if you’d learn anything from them until after you sat with them? :)

  3. Tadhg

    That is an interesting question and my company explicitly (attempts to) address this. How? we have a step in our recruitment process – the cultural interview – to assess the candidate purely on the basis of culture and values. Our mantra is “values and a career not skills and a job”.

    A Cultural Leader (CL) [described below(*)] runs the cultural interview and has full veto on the hire should they believe the candidate is not a good cultural fit. More importantly the CL becomes the culture & values mentor for the successful candidate for the duration of their career.

    The CL Team performs the function that would typically be handled by a HR department. Should any issues arise that are values based – then the role of the CL is to represent their cohort in finding a resolution.

    We are relatively new to this innovation and it is by far the most interesting, educational, challenging and rewarding part of my overall role. We don’t always get it right – but we have had many great outcomes in the short two years it has been in action – and we continue to learn.

    For more insight:

    (*) The Role of a Cultural Leader
    Cultural Leaders are people in acQuire who meet the following conditions:
    – They have been with the company for a period of at least three years.
    – They are both a Shareholder and a Director of acQuire Technology Solutions.
    – They have agreed that acQuire is a community they want to belong to; they are not just doing a job.
    – They are mentored into truly understanding the values and communicating them to each employee that they are connected to.
    – They are the custodians of the culture. The culture is defined by the Values Constitution, and any changes to it have to be approved by all the Cultural Leaders. Anyone in acQuire can submit requests suggesting modifications to the values, but the Board of Directors will research and ratify the changes.

  4. Phil Simon

    The Whole Brain Group (profiled in The New Small) asks a similar question:

    “Is this someone I’d want to go to lunch with?”

  5. Ben Nichols

    It’s a play on ‘The Empathy Test” used in PKD’s Sci-Fi classic. As a hiring manager I ensure questions on ‘handling problem customers’ and ‘best exeperience solving a customer’s mission’ are included in the initial interview questions. We still cannot tell Androids from real people, but the answers are often telling and can lead to selection for a second interview.



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