Culture Recruitment: 5 Steps to Bias-Free Culture Testing

Published by:
Joe Caccavale
July 9, 2021
min read

Let’s get one thing straight: there’s nothing wrong with looking for people who are more likely to cooperate with your team and embody your core values.


Problems arise when we perceive company culture as something that potential hires must fit in to.

If your organization is made up of a fairly harmonious team, then chances are, your culture will be reflective of this dominant demographic. 

When someone outside of this ‘norm’ applies for a job, they’re unlikely to fit in with your culture.

This is why ‘culture fit’ - the idea of assessing candidates to see how they ‘fit in’ with your company’s culture - has been widely criticised in recent years.

Assessment stages like culture fit interviews and meet-the-team tests are often a smokescreen for unconscious bias - whether hirers are aware of this or not!

What we might think of as being our ‘gut instinct’ or ‘recruiter instinct’ is actually just bias.

How unconscious bias affects hiring

Unconscious bias occurs when we make snap judgments and associations about others.

We have a tendency to warm to those most like ourselves and resists the unfamiliar.

Just take a look at the results of this U.S. study below on how someone’s appearance alone can affect how we perceive them.

Stereotype bias chart

Bias is completely natural but can be seriously harmful to diversity if it’s not designed out of your hiring process.

It doesn’t matter how pure your intentions are - we’re all subject to these biases.

The more informal your hiring process is, the greater the chance of bias creeping into your decision-making.

Generally speaking, delving into candidates’ backgrounds leads to more bias.

How someone dresses, speaks, where they went to university or their favourite football team can all influence our perception of them.

How to build a fairer, culture-led hiring process

Here at Applied, we’ve made it our mission to make hiring fairer for candidates, and more predictive for hirers.

We know from decades of research that focussing on skills over credentials and taking gut instinct out of the equation results in better hires, greater return and improves diversity.

This allows you to hire for what matters, skills and values.

Instead of tagging on an entire culture-testing round, below we’ll show you how to bake culture into every step of your hiring process.

Step 1: Reframe culture as mission/values alignment

One of the biggest problems with testing for culture is that it’s subjective - and therefore impossible to assess fairly.

Instead, we’d recommend using mission/values alignment instead.

Whilst your culture could be interpreted differently by each employee, your mission and values should be universally understood.

How aligned someone is with your mission and values also says a lot more about how likely they are to stick around.

Mission/values alignment don’t require candidates to be from a specific background, if someone is bought into your mission and shares your organization’s values, they have a fair chance of being hired.

Step 2: Define the skills and values required for the job

If you want to build a data-driven hiring process, you’ll first have to decide what you’re looking for.

Rather than listing your desired work experience or academic achievements (both of which narrow your search to a specific type of person), simply write down 6-8 essential skills that would be required to fo the job.

Ideally, this will be a mix of technical skills and general working characteristics.

If culture recruitment is a top priority, then you can add both your organization’s top  two or three values and mission alignment as skills to be tested for.

This will ensure that this alignment is being tested throughout the entire process.

Step 3: Start testing skills at the screening stage

Want to forge a more ethical, culture-led process? The first (and possibly most difficult) thing you’ll have to do is wave goodbye to CVs.

It may be a bitter pill to swallow but the data doesn’t lie: CVs not only result in biased outcomes but also don’t tell us much about someone’s ability.

As the chart below shows, no matter where you are in the western world, those with non-white sounding names are penalized in the hiring process.

Hiring bias studies from around the world

And it’s not just your ethnicity that affects callbacks - your gender, perceived social class and age can all result in discrimination.

If we then look at the data around the trusty CV’s predictive power, they’re failing us here too.

Predictive validity of CVs

At the top of the chart are work sample tests - these are what we use here at Applied.

Work samples take tasks that candidates would have to tackle should they get the job, and ask them to perform that task.

To create a work samples, you take 1-3 skills needed for the job and think of scenarios or everyday tasks that would test these skills.

Then, pose that scenario hypothetically.

By asking what someone would do (as opposed to have done in the past), you’re able to hone in on potential rather than experience.

Here’s a real-life example of a work sample we used for an Account Manager role:

Question: A long term customer is coming up for renewal and you're working on renewing their annual subscription to Applied. They love the platform, use it well, and often refer other organisations to us as potential new customers. They are currently only paying 25% of the standard license fee for their volume of hiring and you need to raise their price. 

Please write an email to your main contact there to explain the situation in advance of a meeting. 

Skills Tested: Commercial Awareness, Communication, Champion the User

As you can see above, one of the attached skills was ‘Champion the User’ - one of our core values.

Anyone can read your company values on your website and recite them back to you in an interview, which is why we’d rather assess whether or not they come through in candidates’ answers.

Step 4: Debias your interviews 

When it comes to interviews, there’s a temptation to assess whether or not you ‘get on’ with a candidate.

“Can I get a drink with this person?” is not the question you should be asking yourself.

Much like at the screening stage, the focus should be purely on skills.

Use these question types to see how candidates would think and work in the job:

Work samples: Scenarios that pose a challenge will allow you to see how candidates react and think through problems

Case studies: Give candidates the context or a larger project and ask a series of follow up questions to see how they would approach it.

Job simulations: If there are tasks that can be performed in the interview, then ask candidates to role play them (client meeting, sales call, presentation etc)

Again, you’ll need to attach relevant skills to each of your interview questions.

At the end of the process, you’ll be able to map out where each candidates strengths and weaknesses lie.

As long as you don’t probe into their background, you can also directly ask candidates about their motivations and interests in your mission. 

We tend to ask:

“Why do you want to work at Applied and why now?”

Skills tested: Mission Alignment

Step 5: Make sure you have scoring criteria

This is where the data comes in…

For each of your screening and interview questions, write down a few bullet points detailing what a good, mediocre and bad answer would include.

You can then use this guide to give each answer a score out of 5.

These scores can be averaged out at the end of the hiring process to build a candidates leaderboard.

To make sure that mission and values are at the forefront of your recruitment process, be sure to include these in your scoring criteria - let reviewers know that you’re looking for candidates who embody the relevant value.

Debiased hiring bundle

Applied is the essential platform for debiased hiring. Purpose-built to make hiring empirical and ethical, our platform uses anonymized applications and skill-based assessments to identify talent that would otherwise have been overlooked.

Push back against conventional hiring wisdom with a smarter solution: book in a demo of the Applied hiring platform.