When It Comes to Determining ‘Fit,’ It’s About What You See and Hear — Not What You Ask

Want help with your hiring? It's easy. Enter your information below, and we'll quickly reach out to discuss your hiring needs.

ObserverWith apologies to Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a recruiter in possession of a role to fill must be in want of a candidate who “fits” that role.

But “fit” is such a strange thing — a pressing concern in any hiring matter, but also a vaporous notion, a concept we all kind of know and understand but can’t always articulate. It has something to do with skills and experience, but even more to do with personalities, cultures, beliefs — and so, maybe it’s no wonder that fit often seems inexplicable, given its component parts.

Except, here’s the thing: influential headhunter, author, and principal at executive search firm Travis & Company Mike Travis, has thought a lot about “fit” and what it really means — and he’s come up with one of the clearer and more comprehensive definitions I’ve seen.

“A sort of obvious point — but I think this gets lost in the shuffle a lot — [is that] in order to figure out fit, you have to know what ‘fit’ is,” Travis says. “And I think companies and individuals within the company need to very consciously understand what it means to fit into their culture. Without this kind of corporate self-knowledge, these questions about fit always devolve into, ‘I liked him’ or ‘I didn’t like him’ — and that’s not very useful.”

Understanding the Four Components of “Fit”

According to Travis, determining whether or not a candidate fits a role and/or company requires that recruiters look at four subsets of “fit”:

1. Shared Motivations

A candidate who fits a role shares certain key motivations with the rest of the company. For example, the employees of a startup may be motived by the idea of building something new; the employees of a nonprofit may be motivated by a certain social mission; the employees of a hedge fund may simply be motivated to make money.

Before hiring a candidate for any role, recruiters should determine whether or not the candidate shares the key motivations.

2. Shared Work Ethic

Some places are “80-hours-a-week places,” Travis says, “and that’s expected of everyone.” Other places are more lax and flexible. 

“People who want to be in one or the other environment won’t do well if they’re put in the wrong place,” Travis says. The candidate who thrives in the fast-paced, everybody-works-overtime environment will grow bored at a place where everyone saunters in and out whenever they want. Likewise, the candidate who enjoys calmer, more flexible work arrangements is likely to crack under the pressure of an 80-hour week.

3. Shared Business Ethics

“Everybody has to obey the law, but beyond that there’s a pretty wide set of views on what constitutes ethical behavior,” Travis says.

For example, Travis says he knows people who are proud of the fact that they’ve never laid anyone off. Such people certainly wouldn’t want to work at a company where layoffs are a routine strategy. Similarly, a company that is very bottom-line-oriented may view someone who objects to layoffs as too sentimental and soft.

4. Shared Personality Traits or Intellectual Traits 

Last but not least, a candidate can only fit in a role and/or company if they have the sort of personal and intellectual traits that will help them get along and work well with other members of the team.

“I have a client where everybody is really smart and articulate, very crisp communicators,” Travis says. “If you got in there and were kind of long-winded and didn’t really get to the point, you’d be toast.”

Travis says that recruiters should know exactly what they’re looking for in these categories before going into any interview. And if they aren’t quite sure of what they’re looking for, then they need to take some time to hash it out with colleagues and/or clients.

“If they can’t put their finger on it right away, it’s a good signal that it’s time to have a discussion with some colleagues over coffee or in a brief meeting and try to figure it out,” Travis says.

Looking and Listening for the Signs of Cultural Fit

Once a recruiter does know what they’re looking for in each of the four categories, they must go into the interview looking for certain “signs.” It is in these signs that they’ll find fit.

“I think that determining fit is a lot more about listening and observing than it is about asking questions,” Travis says. “When I ask a question, the candidate will come back with an answer, and whatever their answer is — whatever our topic is — the way they choose to answer, the things they choose to talk about, are all a window into what they think is important and what they value.”

For example: if a recruiter is looking for someone who values collaboration, teamwork, and consensus over personal achievement, they should be wary of candidates who choose to answer all questions by focusing on their personal performance with nary a reference to colleagues, coworkers, or team successes.

Travis also says the questions that candidates ask can give insight into whether or not they fit as well. He recalls searching for a candidate for a startup years ago. One particular candidate asked Travis what kind of administrative support he would have at the company.

“That really told me everything I needed to know, because he had no clue what working at a startup was like, and his question showed it,” Travis explains.

Travis also notes that it’s important for recruiters to carefully observe body language and other nonverbal forms of communication in order to understand what a candidate is like.

“Is the candidate extroverted or introverted? Confident? Not confident? Articulate? Not articulate? These are all things that you get just from watching the person in action,” Travis says.

All of this is not to say that questions are never useful for interviewers. Listening and observing may be crucial to determining fit, but there are some instances in when a recruiter can simply outright ask a question to determine fit. For example, if sourcing candidates for a Fortune 100 company, a recruiter wants to ensure that they are finding candidates that can work in rigid, highly structure environments.

“I’ll ask about that directly and see what they say,” Travis says. “Sometimes they can give a convincing answer one way or another. Sometimes they tell you what they think you want to hear — but you can tell if they don’t believe it.”

Ultimately, when it comes to interviews, Travis says recruiters need to approach them as conversations more than anything else.

“The less formal it is — or the less formal it feels — and the more at ease you can put the person you’re interviewing, the more revealing they’ll be,” Travis says. “You really just want to have a discussion that’s about whether this job is right for this individual.”

By Matthew Kosinski