Your startup is a vulnerable social organism. If you have five or 10 employees and they are working well together, your startup could easily be wiped out if you hire someone who doesn't fit into your culture.
How so? Imagine that everyone in your startup acts according to your values of respecting a high IQ, teamwork and obsession with customer satisfaction. And then you find you can't keep up with the demand for your company's product and you're desperate to bring in a new engineer.
In your haste, you find someone who received top grades from the California Institute of Technology but seems a little anti-social. When you assemble members of your team to decide whether to hire him, a few people express some hesitation. But you decide to overrule them and hire the engineer anyway. After all, you reason, the market for hiring talent is competitive that you can't afford to pass up the chance to bring such a brainy coder to help with the workload.
Six months later, the new hire has infuriated everyone else in the company, and your chief of engineering and the rest of the engineering staff threaten to quit unless you fire that new engineer. From the moment he joined the company, he started giving off bad signals, skipping team meetings, refusing to let other engineers review his code and insisting that he is smarter than everyone else and need not listen to customers.
Wouldn't it be great if you could keep yourself from making such a huge hiring mistake? Here are five steps to take that will block such barbarians from getting through your startup's hiring gate:
1. Articulate your startup's core values.
You may be thinking, "Do I really need to do this?" You might be skeptical about values if you're an engineer or mathematician with limited experience managing other people. But if you have managed others, you know that unless everyone in the company shares your values, you're going to lose talented people and suffer from weak productivity.
Justin Moore, CEO of Axcient, a Mountain View, Calif-based provider of recovery services, told me in 2011 that CEOs should spent 20 percent of their time on culture. Moore advises leaders of startup teams to ask probing questions: "Who am I? What is important to me? What values do I have that contribute to the success of my startup's customers and employees?" Based on the answers to such questions, they can develop a list of no more than five core values.
Consider the values of SHERPA, a startup being developed by my Babson College students that helps people buy and sell textbooks. It cleverly picked values that are consistent with the above questions and that are easy to remember: sociability, honesty, eagerness, respect, perseverance and accountability.
2. Create an interview guide that tests for each value.
Use the interview process to look for people who don't fit with your company's values. Do this having managers agree on a list of interview questions.
One way to start off such an interview might be to ask the candidate what values he or she would like to see in an employer. Listen to the answer and then explain your startup's values. If there is little overlap, that would be a good sign of a weak fit.
Ask a question to see whether a candidate would act according to your startup's values. For example, a test of teamwork might be: "Imagine that you're sitting with other candidates waiting to give a presentation to the hiring manager. What would you do while waiting?"
Most people would say that they would read through their presentation. The candidates you want to hire, however, would say they would offer to listen to the presentations of the other people waiting and give feedback to help them improve.
3. Screen for fit at the first interview.
Be sure to conduct the interview assessing cultural fit the first time you meet the candidate. That way, you can stop interviewing people who don't fit -- perhaps even in the middle of the first meeting. This will keep you from being tempted to hire someone with needed hard skills but who does not align perfectly with your company's culture.
You're wasting time for your company and the candidate if you spend more time than necessary to determine cultural fit.
4. Check 10 references.
Examining 10 references sounds way too high. But most candidates will give you three to five references -- people they believe will give glowing reports. Figure out how to get references beyond the ones the candidate provides.
See if you know anyone who worked with the candidate at a previous employer. Or use LinkedIn or an alumni database to find the people who can connect you to other references.
In addition to checking the basic facts the candidate provides ask the references questions to help you determine if the candidate is in sync with the company's values. It's a good sign if the references you found independently confirm what the candidate said.
5. Hire only if your team agrees that a candidate fits.
Before you make an offer, assemble a team of people who interviewed the candidate and ask them to vote on the hiring. Ideally hire only candidates when there's complete agreement. If you can't get consensus, be sure to hear the reasons why some team members vote no.
And if any team member can make a good case that the candidate does not fit with your startup's values, block that barbarian before he enters your startup's gate.