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It's an all too familiar story. A new hire, seemingly a great fit on paper and super enthusiastic during their first week of onboarding, starts to have second thoughts about the nature of the work and their place in the team.
Maybe the problems they were excited about solving have already been dealt with and the role is now less strategic. Perhaps they thought the role was fairly autonomous but there’s actually a lot of managing up and stakeholder interaction required.
No matter the reason, these seemingly small differences in job expectation and job reality can go on to have a huge impact on your new hire and the wider team.
So, how can you attract the right people for not just the job but the culture of the team, too? We’ve shared our five-point plan for including cultural fit in a job description below but first, let’s look at what cultural fit means and why it's something worth hiring for.
What is cultural fit?
Most often associated with the hiring process, cultural fit (culture fit) is the extent to which potential hires align their values, beliefs and behaviours with those of the company. We’re big believers in strong company culture and screening new hires for cultural fit helps you assess what kind of impact they could have on the overall organisation.
📖 Cultural fit is the extent to which potential hires align their values, beliefs and behaviours with those of the company.
While it’s most common to use the interview process to sound out your future colleague’s cultural fit within the team, there’s another huge opportunity for you to attract the right candidates: the job description.
We’ll get to that later, but for now, it’s worth highlighting what cultural fit does come with a warning sticker: diversity. Only focus on cultural fit and you’ll end up hiring people who all look, think and act the same way. It’s easy enough to do: identifying common values instead of making personal connections goes against our typical social interactions. But remember, a great company culture reflects a diverse workforce.
Cultural fit assessment: why it’s important
Remember that new hire we talked about earlier? Well, their second thoughts can trigger a whole heap of negative emotions, like:
- Anxiousness, that the role was the wrong decision on their part.
- Frustration, as the person's skills and traits aren't being fully utilised and valued.
- Resentment, for the role being misrepresented on the company's part.
- Low morale and mood, as the person starts to feel stuck in this situation.
These emotions broadly follow the same trajectory as the Kubler-Ross change curve (PDF). Originally developed in 1969 as a model to explain the grieving process, the model also helps people understand their reactions to a significant change or upheaval… such as starting a new job and then having second thoughts.
Without solving the fundamental person-role mismatch, these negative emotions — left unaddressed — can spiral into really difficult interpersonal problems that can tear a functioning team apart. These emotions manifest in myriad ways, consciously or not: passive-aggressiveness, unnecessary pushbacks, emotional outbursts, or withdrawal from the role and the work.
And not only is it emotionally painful for the team, but it's emotionally painful for the person too. In fact, mismatch between the person and the role is one of the biggest causes of burnout. The reverse is true as well: if people feel that their skills are needed and their differentiated traits are valued, it's one of the best predictors for being energised and happy in the job. Some studies even show that it trumps salary.
By taking the time to consider and prioritise cultural fit in your job description and interview process, you’re proactively protecting your new hires and existing team from a potential mismatch.
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What makes a good job description?
So what goes wrong when there’s a person-role mismatch in a new hire? Essentially, expectations of the skills and traits required in the role were not made clear enough from the get-go, and so a mismatch became significantly more likely to happen. The objective of hiring is not to find the best person for the job. It's to find the person who is the best fit for the job.
This is where the importance of a job specification comes in.
See how we just said job specification rather than description? That wasn’t just an attempt to diversify our writing with fun synonyms (although we do try and do that too). A job spec is actually very different from a job description: it doesn’t just describe the job (responsibilities, experience required, salary, benefits, etc.), but also goes into transparent and honest detail about the specific skills and traits a person needs in order to be a good fit for the role. And, just as importantly, the specific skills and traits that aren't a good fit for this role and therefore might be red flags.
A job specification is different from a job description because it goes into detail about the specific skills and traits a person needs in order to be a good fit for the role, as well as the specific skills and traits that aren't a good fit for this role.
As Maria Campbell — a people leader in high-growth startups — puts it in a blog post on the topic, "so often, we pick a job title and start hiring for that because it might solve a problem that we haven’t articulated, and we copy-paste requirements from other job ads, instead of cutting back to first principles to understand the problem and do the work to build up to the job spec."
5 steps to write a job spec that includes cultural fit
So how do you write a job spec that's as true and transparent as possible? The key is to do a few practical exercises to help clarify five things before you start writing for cultural fit:
- Start by getting super clear about the role's job to be done (JTBD)
- Zone in on the skills and experience that are most needed to reach the team objective
- Think about different personality traits that will 'fill the gaps' of the immediate team
- Identify the shared values needed to get things done and enjoy working at the company
- Find (and then explicitly state) any red flags that might make a person-role mismatch more likely
Let’s go through each step in turn, using examples from a real life job spec for a role we recently hired for at Spill: Content Marketing Lead.
1. Clarify the role's job to be done (JTBD)
This is best done by working backwards from the immediate team's (medium- to long-term) objective. By immediate team, we mean the group of people that the new hire will interact and work with on a daily basis. By medium- to long-term, we mean for the year or longer. (Full-time hires shouldn't be solving short-term problems).
👉 For the marketing team at Spill, our annual OKR is to have 50% of inbound leads coming from content.
Then the next question is: what (really) triggered the decision to hire for this role?
The job to be done framework is a neat way of articulating what a customer is really hoping to accomplish when they 'hire' a product or service to 'do a job' for them. This has implications for which attributes of the product or service are focused on. The classic example shows how the 'real' job to be done of a McDonald's milkshake bought from a drive-thru restaurant is to give the driver something to do for the majority of their commute duration. It takes a long time to drink, and keeps them busy. Focusing on the milkshake's thickness — not its flavour or ability to cool you down — then starts to make more sense for McDonald's.
Maria Campbell gives a few overarching examples of why we might (really) decide to hire:
- To address an increase in workload within a team
- To fill a skills or experience gap within a team
- To start doing something new
We could add a few other potential examples to the mix:
- To bring in new processes and ways of working
- To manage junior employees
- To prepare the company for an upcoming funding round or sale
👉 For the marketing team at Spill, the role was created in order to fill a skills and experience gap.
Putting the team objective together with the reason for hiring gives you a transparent description of the role's job to be done, and from a cultural fit perspective, this tells the prospective hire (a) what success looks like for the team, and (b) what their individual contribution to team success needs to be (broadly speaking).
The typical structure for articulating any job to be done goes like this: situation > motivation > expected outcome. For example, "When I go running (situation), I want to distract myself with music (motivation) so that I can run faster (expected outcome)".
👉 The job to be done for the Content Marketing Lead role therefore becomes:
We are hiring for a Content Marketing Lead in order to fill the marketing team's current skills and experience gap so that we can achieve our goal of 50% of inbound leads coming from content.
This should be the first sentence at the top of any job spec, because it frames it with a 'why' — and in doing so helps avoid a potential misunderstanding over the purpose of the role. Imagine if you started a new role thinking that you were being brought in for your domain experience, but actually you were being brought in primarily to manage junior people: it's not setting this up to be a successful hire on either side. Far better to make the job to be done explicit, right from the beginning.
2. Focus on essential skills and experience
These should be the skills and experience that are most needed to reach the team objective. Instead of copy and pasting the most common skills usually associated with the role, it's worth doing a quick exercise to identify which skills are specifically needed in order to achieve the objective given the existing skills already in the current team.
In order for the new joiner to feel innately valued, the skills and experience they bring need to be underserved in some respect by the current team, and need to be central to achieving the team objective.
To bring a bit of rigour to the process, we use something we call the 'Benton box' (named after Calvin Benton, the Founder of Spill, who we think came up with the concept — but it's highly likely that he didn't, in which case, our apologies to the unknown originator.) It's essentially a way of prioritising problems, and we use it in a few areas of the business, with hiring being a big one.
For hiring, we'll write the team objective on the left, and then list all the skills (or inputs or workstream areas — whatever you want to call them) required to achieve it. More is more: list everything you can think of, even if including it is a bit of a stretch. The aim is to go wide first before narrowing down.
Then, rank each skill out of ten according to certain criteria. You can sub in or add in different criteria if you like — sometimes different teams or different roles require it (for example, in a customer success role you might replace 'ability to be done with freelancers' with 'ability to be automated') — but we find these four criteria to be a good foundation. You can flip the ordering round (10 can be either high or low) to make sure that you can sum the scores into one easily comparable number and rank them.
- Importance to achieving team objective (10 = high, 1 = low)
- Current in-house capability on the team (1 = high, 10 = low)
- Ability to be done with freelancers (1 = high, 10 = low)
- Necessity of domain experience (10 = high, 1 = low)
Summing the scores gives you a more concrete view of which skills are non-negotiable: they're crucial to achieving the team objective, not a strong part of the current team's skillset, harder to contract out to freelancers, and require domain experience (i.e. they can't be learned on the job quickly).
Rather than listing all the possible relevant skills you can think of on the job spec, choose to be specific: focus on the top three or four skills that really are crucial. For the Content Marketing Lead role, we picked the four skills that had the highest summed scores in the Benton box above, and then expanded on them by adding as many specifics — and making them as outcome-focused — as possible.
👉 The specific skills included in the Content Marketing Lead job spec:
- You can get written content to rank on Google. You can improve on-page SEO, you know how to build links (and can get it done), you're a wizard at keyword research and optimisation. You can demonstrate you've done it before.
- You can build up a company's newsletter. We're interested in numbers: how many subscribers did you go from and to? What about conversion rates? How many atttributable leads did you generate from the newsletter?
- You can set up, monitor and interpret tracking and analytics for content. That includes (but isn't limited to) web traffic analysis like Google Analytics, SEO tools like Ahrefs, CRM systems like Hubspot, email newsletter management tools and more. It's also helpful if you're good with Google Sheets (or Excel).
- You can increase landing page conversion rates. Again, can you show us some numbers and talk us through how you previously improved a landing page's conversion rate? It's helpful if you can use A/B testing tools like Google Optimise, and if you're able to make design and copy changes on the web design software like Webflow.
3. Find the right mix of personalities
To work well together, teams need a mix of different personality traits that complement each other. Having too many people with similar personality traits — and indexing low on other traits — can hugely hold a team back, even if the skills and experience within the team are impressive. This is because personality traits (here we use the widely-accepted Big 5 types) are a big predictor of the psychological role a person will play in a team, as showed by a Harvard Business Review study, and a team needs a variety of psychological roles to be filled in order to function well.
5 psychological roles and their associated personality traits
Psychological role: Results-orientated 📈
Why it's needed: Teams need some members who naturally organise work and take charge, or else there can be confusion, laziness and a lack of motivation.
Associated personality trait: High in extroversion
Psychological role: Relationship-focused 🤝
Why it's needed: Teams need to be cohesive and have a high level of trust, or else people can become passive-aggressive or unproductively competitive.
Associated personality trait: High in agreeableness
Psychological role: Process and rule followers 🚦
Why it's needed: Teams need some members who naturally organise work and take charge, or else there can be confusion, laziness and a lack of motivation.
Associated personality trait: High in conscientiousness
Psychological role: Innovative and disruptive thinkers 💡
Why it's needed: Teams need some members who pay attention to details and follow processes, or else things don't get done properly or at a high enough standard.
Associated personality trait: High in openness to experience
Psychological role: Pragmatic 💪
Why it's needed: Teams need some members who anticipate problems and recognise when the team needs to change, or else the team can drift off course.
Associated personality trait: High in emotional stability
How can getting an uneven mix of psychological roles (and related personality traits) derail a team? Say that a team has too many people who are relationship-focused (i.e. they index high in agreeableness), then there'll be too much time spent ensuring harmony and too little time focused on results and accountability. They'll get on, but they won't get ahead.
The best way to find the gaps in the current team is to get everyone on that team to do the Big 5 personality test (~10min, free) and then sum the results. Here's how the two other people currently working in the Spill marketing team scored, and what the gaps were when we summed the scores together:
👉 To hire for cultural fit, we included missing psychological traits/roles into the Content Marketing Lead job spec:
- You're pragmatic. You take a proactive approach to getting things done. When there's a lack of process you create it. When someone forgets to tell you something, you chase them until they do. When you're not sure about something, you raise it directly with the relevant person. You're straightforward and level-headed.
- You're obsessed with results. You like setting up and tracking KPIs. You always know the numbers. You like sharing progress updates before you're asked. You stay focused on the goal and don't let irrelevant tasks take up your time and attention. You embrace conflict to make sure everyone stays on the right track.
An aside: certain personality traits might tend to naturally accompany certain skills. For example, a role requiring a high degree of competence in tracking and analytics is likely to attract someone who is a process and rule follower (high in conscientiousness). It might be more difficult to find a person with the required skills that indexes very low in conscientiousness. What we're aiming to do here is find the right mix between personality traits that correlate with the required skills, and personality traits that fill in the current team's gaps.
4. Identify important shared values
In short, a new hire needs to be:
(a) distinct enough (in terms of personality traits) to fill the 'psychological roles gap' of the immediate team;
(b) similar enough (in terms of shared values) to fit into and be able to succeed within the company's culture.
We've spoken about the need to be distinct within the immediate team in the previous section. This section looks at the need to be similar; to subscribe to certain shared values.
Here we draw from optimal distinctiveness theory in the field of sociology, which looks at how — in any kind of social group — people feel most valued and loyal when they are the right mix of distinct within a group and connected to it. However, this is not the part in the job spec where you simply copy and paste your company values word-for-word.
The key is to focus on the values that are to do with the way work gets done at the company, and make them more directive by phrasing them as 'over' statements (we do x over y). If you don't give your values a trade-off like this (by explaining what those traits come at the expense of), they risk becoming universal (values like 'human', 'diligent', 'helping others') and therefore don't help select for people that are a better fit for the role.
👉 The shared values included in the Content Marketing Lead job spec are:
- You value big plays over tidiness.
- You value getting something shipped over making it perfect.
- You value forgiveness over permission.
5. Embrace the red flags
Here, we're looking for any common skills, traits or preferences that could suggest that the person will not feel uniquely valued in the role, and therefore lead to a cultural fit mismatch
There are three sources of insight that we mine for red flags at Spill:
- Exit interview notes from previous employees who've left the company. Is there anything that can be learned or extrapolated here? What about the company was misrepresented in a job spec previously, that we can rectify and make extra clear on this one?
- Informal calls with mentors, investors or senior leaders in other companies. Talk to people who've done a lot of hiring before — ideally in the same field you're hiring for — and ask them what mistakes they made or what they wish they'd looked out for in the hiring process.
- Discussions with the internal team and founder. Sometimes the best source of insight is just an honest discussion with the people who are already doing some of the work, day in day out. What would make it harder for the new hire to succeed in the role? What would disrupt the team?
We’re so used to seeing job descriptions that are overwhelmingly positive that it might feel strange to deter people at the first hurdle. But remember, by openly seeking a candidate with the right cultural fit for the role, team and company, you’re doing everyone a favour. Plus, it’s a great way to add extra personality into your job advert and stand out from the crowd.
👉 The red flags included in the Content Marketing Lead job spec:
❌ You really want to manage a team. You won't be managing anyone in the short- and medium-term: this role is for someone who loves doing, not overseeing.
❌ You really want to be a writer or creative. This role is less about writing and more about getting written content to work for a B2B SaaS business. Although you may get involved with writing (if you'd like to!), the primary skills we're looking for are in content marketing, SEO and analytics. We're looking for a sharp, logical mind — not an artist.
❌ You can't prove that you've scaled content at a B2B SaaS company before. For this role, we're looking for someone with domain experience.
By putting in the time and effort to write a thoughtful job specification that includes cultural fit, we can be clearer about expectations and ensure a better person-role fit — ultimately making interpersonal problems in teams less likely to happen.
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