Be Open About Your Culture

Many employers in Asia are coming around to the concept that, in addition to looking for certain skills among their candidates, they should also be looking for people who fit into their organizational culture. Some leaders even talk about cultural fit taking precedence over skills; their idea is that skills can be taught, but cultural fit cannot. Successful organizations need a workforce full of employees who can work well together; they cannot afford the inefficiencies created by employees who operate one way while the market requires they work differently. “Lone wolves” might not be the best fit for an organization that relies on collaboration and synergy, and someone who plays it safe may not make the best contribution to an enterprise that aims to be innovative. Organizations are realizing they need people who can fit seamlessly into the larger group and start producing business value quickly.

So, employers are starting to factor the idea of cultural fit into the recruiting process. They are looking at more than just lines on a CV, and instead are considering things like the priorities a candidate expresses, their work style, the effect they have had in other places where they have worked, their career goals — things that may be hard to fit onto a CV, but which can tell you a lot about the way this person will approach work. It’s not about hiring someone who likes the same movies you do or has the same opinions as you and thinks the same way; instead, it’s about finding someone who can bring new ideas and perspectives, and introduce them in a way that adds business value by fitting into the working style rather than conflicting with it.

Just as organizations need to evaluate their candidates’ fit, though, candidates also need to be able to evaluate the organization and decide if it fits them, too. In the US and other western countries, the idea has been growing for years that candidates are interviewing the company as much as the company is interviewing the candidate. That idea, however, has definitely not taken off in Asian countries.

During the last few months I have had multiple conversations with recent hires at organizations in Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Hong Kong about the recruiting process they experienced. I had two key questions for them:

1) Have you been encouraged to interview the company as much as they are interviewing you?

2) Did you know about your company’s culture before you started work?

The answer to number 1 was “no” in every case, and the answer to number 2 was almost always “no.” Most were surprised by the suggestion that they should be assessing the company; their perception was that the interviewer was in the dominant position, and the candidate should just be happy to have been asked to meet.

Organizations are only hurting themselves, though, if they are not transparent about their corporate culture and if they do not encourage candidates to evaluate their own fit with it. If they are hoping to hire people who will fit the organization, they have to remember that candidates understand themselves better than a hiring manager ever will. If you have certain expectations about how people will work, you will help yourself if you make those clear up front so candidates can decide for themselves if they can meet those expectations. If they take the job and then find the working environment is very different from what they expected, you may find yourself with a poor performer, or you might even have to go through the hiring process again pretty quickly when they get fed up and leave.

I spoke most recently with Arthur, who took a job as a regional sales director for a global manufacturing company. Soon after being hired he attended a session with the entire regional team which he described to me as “a North Korean war room.” With his manager literally standing over his shoulder and reading emails as he typed, with a requirement to copy senior leaders on each and every email, with the need to provide photographic evidence that sales meetings actually took place, it was pretty clear pretty quickly that there was going to be very intense oversight. That can make life difficult in any company, but in one where the team is spread across multiple countries and is interacting daily with multiple customers with fast-changing demands, then the oversight is going to consume a lot of time that could be spent on value-adding activities. If that’s the way the company thinks it needs to operate, then it should of course do that, but it needs to find people who are prepared to work that way. In this case, they didn’t, and Arthur started talking about looking for a new job after only 3 weeks.

In our conversation he acknowledged that there was no discussion about working styles during his interviews, and he never felt it was his place to ask. He asked me, “what company in their right mind would admit to a culture like that?,” and my answer was, “a company that wants to keep people for more than 3 weeks.” I came away from the conversation with 3 thoughts in particular:

1) If an organization wants people who will perform well and stay with them, they need to be open about what it means to work there. Here in Asia, employees have plenty of other options, and if you hire someone who is wrong for you, they are in a better position to take one of those other options and leave you with a gap to fill.

2) There are ways to frame every working environment in a positive light; it does not have to sound like a horrible place to work, because to some people, this is exactly the environment they want. In this case, the firm could say, “We have a centralized style of leadership to overcome the challenges associated with different demands in multiple markets. By exercising control at headquarters we take a lot of responsibility off the shoulders of regional teams so they can focus on serving the customer directly.” That may be a nice way of saying “we will be looking over your shoulder at everything you do,” but for someone who does not want to be responsible for taking a lot of initiative, this could be a dream job. If you aren’t transparent, you are less likely to find that person.

3) If you are afraid to describe your organizational culture because it might scare away good candidates, then maybe that’s a sign you should rethink your culture.

Both the organization and the candidate have a say in whether or not the individual will work there. Hiding important information about your expectations may lead that candidate to make a decision that’s bad for them, which means they have the wrong job and you have the wrong person. Nobody benefits from that, so be open about your culture and encourage job candidates to ask the questions that you wish you had asked before you started working there.

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