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How to Hire When Your Culture is Broken

Posted on in Talent Strategy

Culture.  Is anyone else tired of this word or is just me?  What started out as a cornerstone for gaining a competitive advantage for an organization has quickly eroded.  And it’s unfortunate because when designed intentionally, it’s what separates companies that thrive apart from everyone else.

How did we get here?  In the quest to become a “best places to work” many companies quickly and haphazardly came up with a list of adjectives that they thought described their company cultures.  Some even borrowed the same words and phrases from other companies…which I guess is working efficiently, but definitely not effectively.  I even worked with a client who took a verb he liked and then force fit values to support it.

So we are left with a significant number of organizations who have pretty posters on the wall with words like “honesty, integrity, trust, collaboration, commitment, caring…..” I could go on and on.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with those words if they really define what your company values, but my guess is that there is a gap between who you think you are as an organization and what reality is on the inside.  I’m pretty sure no one would want to walk into a company and see words like “cut throat, no life and unstable.”   I guess it’s all about perspective.

Anyway, here’s the conundrum.  How do you hire when you know the words on the wall are a joke?  You want to be a positive representative of the company but set candidate expectations accordingly without being overt.  How do you balance this?

It’s a tough one.

I’m not one for accepting the status quo and telling people just to live with the way things are and hope for the best. But I’m realistic that you have a job to do and must function in the current environment.  So, the recommendations below are to help you today.  But know that in the long run, you either need to lead transformational change at your organization, hire someone that can help or move on because a failing culture will eventually kill the business.

But here’s how you handle the situation now:


  • Maybe your culture isn’t that bad. When you are talking to a candidate for the very first time, it is critical that you uncover the conditions the person is functioning in at their current employer. It could be that your view of your culture isn’t as bad as where they are coming from.  You also should remember that someone else’s tolerance level is different from yours.


  • Don’t oversell it. In an environment where someone’s experience isn’t going to match the culture statements on the wall, be honest.  In fact, maybe sell against it.  If the word “collaboration” is on the wall and you know full well that a candidate is interviewing for a position on a dysfunctional team, you better believe I’d focus on the challenges one would encounter on that specific team and be abundantly clear about how they operate.


  • You can say it without saying it. People are smart and you can paint an accurate picture by the questions you ask them or exercises you ask them to complete.  Let me give you an example.

One of my clients has an amazing company culture.  But the CEO was relentless when it came to the office appearance….she would see things no one else would and unfortunately, wasn’t the most tactful when letting the team know of her displeasure. It didn’t happen often, but when it did it was in direct conflict with the pretty words on the wall.  So when we were hiring a new office manager, it put everyone in a difficult situation.

So what did we do?

The recruiter was transparent about the leader’s workstyle so there was an awareness and acknowledgment by the candidates (by the way, this relentless attention to detail was also one of the reasons it was an amazing place).  Questions around how they work in a high-stress environment, how they manage up, what steps would they take when they were in specific scenarios that actually happened were asked.  We went one step further by constructing a simulation as part of the interview to immerse candidates in the role real time and firsthand.  The role was filled successfully and the individual is thriving because we showed her exactly what to expect.


  • Find something to sell. Even the worst environment has an upside.  There is something…even if it’s just free soda or summer Fridays.  There is something.


  • Be honest. This is really what everyone should do.  Honesty is the best policy.  If you build rapport with a candidate you can simply tell them you want them to come with their eyes wide open and that there are going to be challenges.  Share them tactfully and professionally.  From there, the decision to join and everything that comes with it is up to them.


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