Interviewing for values alignment

With as little bias as humanly possible


 As I’ve defined elsewhere

Culture is our shared set of beliefs and mindsets, reflected through our behaviors and supported by our organizational systems (processes, protocols, etc.)

A cohesive organizational culture is honest, clear and reinforced.

A cohesive culture imposes constraints on our decisions. Therefore, it comes with a cost that we must pay in order to maintain it. One of those costs is not hiring candidates who don’t share our values and don’t exhibit the behaviors that we view as essential for our success. 

I’m not saying that we should hire people who are exactly like us in every way. The value of organizational diversity is unquestionable. That diversity needs to be supported by a cohesive non-negotiable core. I’m arguing that this core needs to be wider than “acting in accordance with the law”, but anything that falls outside of the core, we should view as welcomed and valued differences. 

But how do we interview for alignment with that core? 

As Rich Paret points out in the essay that this post will revolve around, The Career Story Interview, companies tend to spend more time on evaluating technical skills than on evaluating organizational skills (such as values alignment) by a factor of six. Those who make the extra effort to create a dedicated interview for organizational skills often leave it unstructured, resulting in questions like “if you could be any animal you could choose, which animal would you be?” and evaluation criteria that can be summed up by “would I enjoy having a drink with that person?”. 

There is a better way. 

In his essay, Rich lays out the foundations for a structured career story interview that credibly evaluates a candidate’s alignment with the company culture. It pulls a lot of good ideas from the Topgrading interview method (which I first covered in 2014), and modularizes the interview so it can be plugged into any recruiting process. A lot of the advice in the essay is applicable to interviewing well in general. 

Before the interview

What you’re listening for: a set of competencies or values, broken down into a set of observable behaviors. For example, “communication” can be broken down into: listens to understand, clear and concise in speech and writing, etc. 6 ∓ 2 competencies/values are reasonable ground to cover in a single interview. 

What questions to ask: the career story interview uses a set of predefined questions for every career chapter:

  • What are you most proud of accomplishing during this time?
  • What were the trouble spots, the things you struggled with, during this time?
  • What’s your most significant memory about the people you worked with during this time?
  • Who would be the person most familiar with your work during this time, and will you set up a time for us to talk with them if we both want to move forward after this interview?
  • What closed this episode of your career and opened the next one?

Rich makes the more general case for favoring past-behavior questions (PBQ) over future/hypothetical situational questions (SQ) which is very much in line with the distinction between MSA and PSQ questions I covered here. As he points out, the questions above work better than the typical “tell me about a time…” questions since they allow the interviewer to see behavioral patterns emerging rather than map a single question to a single competency. 

What you need/like/don’t want to hear: even companies that are mindful of the benefit of structured interviews tend to skip this crucial step. To be effective, the evaluation needs to be as structured as the interview. I like Rich’s language of need/like/don’t want to hear which corresponds to must-have/nice-to-have/red flags. 

Pre-communications with the candidate: unless you’re intentionally trying to assess the candidate’s ability to think on their feet, or their memory recall abilities, it’s crucial to give the candidate as much context as possible ahead of the interview. Failing to do so means that you’ll be evaluating them on those two things instead of on what you actually want to evaluate them on. The specific language that Rich suggests in a few points in the essay is a great starting point (I’ve paraphrased it a bit below): 

In our interview, we’ll be talking about your career from the beginning up until now. To start, we’ll divide your career into a series of episodes. For each episode, I have a set of things I’d like to talk about. It’s your story, so how many episodes there are is up to you. We’ll at least talk about how you started out, what you’ve been doing most recently, and what happened in between.

When you’re telling the story of each episode of your career, it can be helpful to structure the story using the acronym STAR:

Situation: Set the context for the story.

Task: Describe what your responsibility was in that situation.

Action: Explain in detail what you did in the story.

Result: Share what outcomes your actions achieved.

During the interview 

Some good pointers: 

  • A career story interview for a post-entry-level candidate usually takes 60 mins to be done right. Personally, I found it easier to work backward in time and start with the candidate’s most recent chapter. It’s the easiest for them to recall and makes it easier for me to transition to candidate Q&A/selling the role when we’re getting close to time, knowing that I covered the most relevant time period. 
  • Withhold judgment/making a decision until after the interview. 
  • Focus on listening mindfully. Taking detailed notes can help you stay in that mindset. 
  • Don’t interject with your own assumptions. Ask open-ended follow-up questions: Who/What/Why/Can you elaborate? Lou Adler’s SMARTe follow-up questions can be another good tool here. 

After the interview

Review your notes, and evaluate whether the candidate exhibited each of the observable behavior you were looking for. The need/like/don’t want to hear list should set a consistent bar across all candidates. 

Interviewing for values alignment

Principled corporate activism

Be clear on where you stand, regardless of where that is 

Corporate activism, or companies taking a stand and acting on social issues, has been a hot discussion topic in the US since the BLM protests in the summer of 2020. 

There is no single right answer to whether and to what extent organizations should take a public stand and action on various social issues (though some disagree even with this statement. But what all right answers have in common is that organizations should be clear and consistent in the stance they take. Not taking a stance is also a stance. 

When organizations don’t clarify where they stand, they foster a false, short-term sense of alignment. Different members can make different assumptions on where the organization stands, and they’ll all be correct. But that false sense of alignment quickly bursts when an external event forces the company to take action (or inaction) and reveal its actual stand. When the misalignment is revealed during a crisis, the damage is far greater. 

Clarifying where you stand leads to short-term pain, when some members have to grapple with the realization that the organization may see things differently than they do. Yet, it pays dividends in the long-run fostering true alignment. 

The now infamous Coinbase is a mission focused company blog post was a commendable attempt in doing just that. Readers directed most of the attention (and criticism) at the stance they took. Still, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with their stance, they deserve credit for taking it, and enduring through the short-term pain on the path for true alignment.

In my reflections and conversations with peers, I tried to extrapolate from that incident (and others) how an organization can more clearly and consistently describe its stance, so when the next big external event happens, it can respond rather than react. 

Two key insights emerged: 

  1. The stance an organization takes on an issue is partially captured by the “sphere” in which it takes action on it, starting with sheer compliance, through actions impacting its members, to action impacting outside the organization at the local, federal or global level. 
  2. Organizations routinely take different stances on different issues. Some organizations care more about issue X, while others care more about issue Y. 

Putting those two insights together allows us to create a map of the organization’s stance on different issues: 

When I re-read the Coinbase post and built the Coinbase version of this map, I ended up with something that looks like this: 

Agree or disagree with the stance itself; it is clearer than what I’ve seen from most organizations.

There are many more nuances and refinements that can and should be captured here, perhaps in future iterations. 

My hope is that experimenting with putting together a version of this map, can help organizations avoid yet-another-knee-jerk-reaction the next time a notable event takes place.

Principled corporate activism