How do you describe your company’s culture to a job candidate?

It’s tempting to default to stock phrases like “We’re collaborative!” or “We believe in work-life balance!” Not only are these phrases generic but also these cultural elements – collaboration and work-life balance or fit – can mean very different things to different people. Your idea could be a “no emails after 7 pm” rule. For someone else, it could mean leaving the office early every afternoon to pick up their children from school or working remotely twice a week.

Failing to describe company culture during the interview process creates an expectation mismatch that’s driving turnover and talent loss. Your new hire expects your company culture to be one way, but the reality could be very different. According to a LinkedIn survey of 10,000 job switchers, 36% cite dissatisfaction with work environment and culture is a top reason for leaving their job.

My work with candidates suggests cultural dissatisfaction may be even higher. Nearly every candidate I speak with mentions company culture as a key motivator for switching jobs. Top talent knows they can have their pick of companies and competitive salaries. That’s why culture matters so much: the people they work with and the environment they do their work in is what differentiates Company A from Company B. The way you define company culture can make or break a candidate’s desire to join your business.

How to Talk About Company Culture During the Interview

How you talk about company culture during the interview process helps you weed out the wrong candidates and signals to the right candidates that your company is a good fit for their next professional step. Rather than falling back on generic descriptions, consider what this description looks like in action at your company.

For example, if you describe your culture as “creative,” what does this look like day-to-day? Is there a flat hierarchy so employees are empowered to act on new ideas? Do managers prioritize output over face-time? Follow the “show-don’t-tell” approach and back up any assertions with examples. This will help your candidate better envision their new life at your company– and weed out candidates who are looking for a different company culture.

Using Culture to Drive Interview Questions

Effective cultural interview questions will help you identify candidates who are the right fit for your company culture. A company with a creative culture might ask a candidate, “Tell me an idea that’s outside the box and you implemented from concept to completion.”

Allison Bockmuller, who works as the Director of Professional Recruitment at a large, national company, recommends a similar approach. “Our culture is a derivative of the industry we serve and a reflection of the type of mentality needed to succeed within the organization,” says Bockmuller. “When I interview candidates, I ask them to share examples of when they are at their best in the workplace. What about the environment or position did they find energizing?”

On the flip side, Bockmuller will also ask candidates to share the most demotivating role or work environment they’ve experienced. “I like to unpack what caused them to feel less engaged or detached from their work. Their answers help us understand if they will be engaged in our work environment.”

“No single job or company will meet all the needs of an individual, but throughout the hiring process, I want to ensure our primary interests and incentives align with the candidate’s primary interests and incentives. I want to be sure this candidate will get energy from our work and our culture, which will lead to their success and intrinsic engagement.”

Combating a Poor Culture Reputation

What happens if your business has a reputation for being a difficult place to work? Recently, I worked with a company that was undergoing a period of restructuring, including layoffs. Candidates were understandably skittish about how these changes had impacted morale and company culture. Rather than ignore the elephant in the room, the hiring manager addressed this immediately during the interviews, explaining the type of culture the company was working to build and why this candidate would be a great fit.

Addressing company culture concerns is also where a recruiter can help. If I know a candidate is particularly sensitive to an issue like flexibility, I will prep the company in advance with this information so they can proactively address this concern during the initial interview. Of course, I don’t advise a company to make claims that aren’t true. If you don’t allow employees to work remotely for the first year, be careful not to imply that immediate remote work is the norm.

Final Thoughts

Company culture can be a tricky subject. If you’re struggling to describe your culture beyond common catchphrases, ask employees what they enjoy most about their work experience. These anecdotes can be great examples for including in interviews, bringing color and character to your candidate conversations.

Do you ever struggle to describe your company’s culture? I invite you to share your thoughts in the comments below.