Culture Interviews: Why We Should Focus On People's Work Personality

It’s the start of 2022, and we’ve been hearing about the Great Resignation for the past six months. A new year often brings people thinking twice about whether they want to stay, and this year, doubly.

For the next few months, we’re going to focus on topics relating to why people quit, how to keep them, and how to hire great people when you do have to replace folks. We’re collecting them on our Attracting, Hiring, and Keeping Great People resources page.

By Jeff Schwaber

February 22, 2022

The concept of a “culture interview” is a controversial one, in part because it does not have a singular, consistent meaning. Some companies use this type of interview to evaluate whether a candidate likes the same kind of beer as the interviewer, is generally friendly seeming, has a similar socioeconomic background, or is otherwise like the interviewer from a social perspective. Facebook’s poorly designed culture interview excluded Black people. Whether it’s a focus on the right schools, the right look, the right accent, or any non-behavioral characteristic of people, these interviews produce a certain kind of cultural homogeneity among those who are hired, and they miss out on the real purpose of interviewing for people’s “work personality”—the way they behave about the work they do.

What is work personality or work culture? It’s all of the things that affect how a person does the job and aren’t their skills and experience. Imagine taking a moment to list out, at the highest level, all of the aspects of a candidate that we might possibly care about. Here’s a quick version of that list:

  1. Skills
  2. Experience
  3. Ability to learn
  4. Current relationships within the field
  5. How they approach the work


That last one is really a big amorphous category of everything else—how and what they communicate and collaborate, whether they are reliable, how they deal with mistakes and feedback, whether they have gotten lost in minor priorities or stay focused on the most important thing, etc. One could try to wrap this category up in some short phrase—work habits or mental models, for example—, and it would miss out on at least some of what we mean. Some people try to call it culture.

Certainly, we can see why the other ones are important. Some things we ask employees to do are things that they need skills for, and sometimes having the experience of doing those skills makes you better at it, or we can only tell if you have the skill if you have the experience. A perfect example is video editing. Cutting together video and audio footage to make a smooth video is a skill, and there are two reasonable ways to tell if someone has that skill: have them show you (skills) or see that they’ve done it before (experience).

Of course, people can also learn how to do a skill, and sometimes a fast learner can quickly outpace someone who already has the skill but learns slowly, especially in an area where the underlying technology and needed skills are themselves changing rapidly. This is why it’s generally better to hire computer programmers who have less experience but are learning quickly than ones who have more but are stagnant—the underlying technology landscape is moving so fast that today’s skills aren’t as helpful in a few years as the ability to learn is.

Continuing down the list, existing relationships can be a legitimate thing to hire for! The salesperson who knows lots of people in the industry is often vastly more valuable than a more skilled one who doesn’t. The software engineer who knows and has worked with the key players on a standards committee may be a better representative to it than a more skilled one who doesn’t. The project manager who can call up their many technically skilled friends and get them to answer questions may be better able to complete the project than a more skilled but less connected one.

But interviewers often spend too much of their time and focus on evaluating skills and experience, leaving out that last item, the question of how candidates go about their work, the question of culture. The work that an employee does is only a part of what they bring to the company and its culture. How they do the work, how they interact with people, how they behave, is in many ways the most important, as it is their mental models and work habits that will help other people work well with them, or drive them away, whether from the project, the team, or the company. It’s also the thing we should test for in the kind of interview I’m describing.

Our work habits and mentality build the organization’s culture

One person’s habits and mentality can impact the work of the whole organization. As an example, imagine a candidate for the marketer role. They have the skills, and they’ve been a marketer before. They are quite able to learn new technologies, and they know all the people they need to know for the role. And every time you give them any feedback about anything they’ve done, they shut down and refuse to acknowledge anything you’ve said for the rest of the day. Or they turn it around and make it a referendum on you as a leader.

Or on the opposite end, imagine the software engineer who can do the job and is great at the job but is constantly generating conflicts with other engineers over personal pet peeves in the code. Or the software engineer who solves problems that entertain them but don’t matter to the customer, or who don’t bother telling you that their preferred solution will cost a lot more and don’t tell you about cheaper options. I’m always reminded of the agilist story of the engineers asked to build a toaster that could detect when the toast was brown and offered to spend millions of dollars developing a browning sensor. Fortunately, they offered to do so before they spent those millions of dollars, and someone was able to come up with the idea of using a timer instead.

Or imagine any person in any job that is a strict perfectionist. They can’t share the work they have done—until they consider it completely done. Sometimes—rarely, but sometimes—this is just the person you need. Usually, you at least want the flexibility to identify when something needs to be 85% of it today, not 100% of it next year.

These are not people you want to work with. Each of these is someone who will cause other employees to leave. The first people out the door will be your best employees; they have the most opportunities elsewhere. Over time, your whole company will degrade as the best employees head to the doors and the worst pick up the habits of these people.

Great employees for a company show a consistent set of mental models and work habits that help them be great for the company, whether they are good at the role or not. They:

  • Accept feedback gracefully.
  • Give feedback with kindness.
  • Can recognize failures and learn from them.
  • Look for and identify problems as opportunities to improve.
  • Can empathize with the person who will be impacted by their work.
  • Care about things going well.
  • Are growing and improving daily.
  • Are conscientiousness.
  • Collaborate with others—know when they need others’ skills and experience, and reach out promptly.
  • Manage conflict well—raise conflict over important things, smooth conflict over unimportant ones.
  • They deliver what they commit to.


Unfortunately, little of this will show up in a skills interview or on a resume. We have to interview for these traits. Whether you call it a culture interview, a work personality interview (also a terrible name), or just “The Last Interview,” you need one designed to suss these out.

The second part of this article will talk about how.

Here’s another perspective on this topic:

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