A company’s culture is a reflection of the shared values, behaviors, and traditions of its people. More colloquially, it is what a company “feels like” on a day-to-day basis. Often, employees express their satisfaction with the job in terms of company culture, and how they fit, or do not fit, within that culture. For that reason, the somewhat vague concept of “culture fit” remains a factor in virtually every hire that is made, and a factor considered vital by both employers and candidates. Having said that, the way in which a candidate’s culture fit is typically assessed invites unconscious biases that can result in less than optimal hiring decisions. Candidly, culture fit is a vague and unscientific concept that warrants careful scrutiny.

I have served as the COO of Flatiron School since early 2014. We are a growing company and we do a lot of hiring. Getting it right is important to us because poor decisions are time consuming, expensive, and can be unpleasant for all concerned. About two years ago I was meeting with the hiring team for a role and we were evaluating culture fit based on whether the team would like to have a coffee with the candidate. That was the moment that I realized we needed to determine precisely what culture-fit meant to us. We care about culture fit because we know that technical competency alone is not enough to be successful. We want every candidate to achieve success here, because their success is key to the success of the company. But how do we assess culture-fit in a consistent way?

To help help better establish our own culture, we started by going directly to our employees. We launched our first Employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS) survey to identify key drivers of employee satisfaction. This survey was sent to all employees and asked the straightforward question “Would you refer a friend to work at Flatiron School?” The greatest insight we gained was from including an open text box for feedback. We heard things like “I have an opportunity to have a real impact on the world” and “I’ve seen this organization learn and grow and think it’s important to work somewhere that everyone is invested in improving themselves.”

The comments enabled us to identify some strong signals of employees who were connected and engaged with our mission and our culture (which still required further definition). The survey pushed us to be precise in assessing a candidate “culture fit”. As a first step, we began to think more seriously about Flatiron School’s unique culture, which we tried to distill into the following key elements:

Mission: Our mission is to align education with reality.

This is an audacious mission, as any such mission should be. If we are successful, this will take us years. To date, we have stayed ruthlessly focused on outcomes to build trust with our student and employer communities. We’ve deliberately waited to increase access to our programs until we felt we had the right infrastructure and resources to maintain the outcomes we expect for graduates of Flatiron School. Only in the past 6 months have we begun to increase access via our online campus — and we have a long road ahead of us.

Without a doubt, we are a mission-driven organization and that has provided us with a special opportunity to build a team of passionate and engaged people. In looking at some of our most successful and satisfied employees, it became clear that they shared in that sense of mission. In fact, it might be a critical factor. Without being overly deliberate about it, we were doing a pretty good job of consistently talking about our mission in our hiring process as well as assessing for it. Nevertheless, we realized we could do more to communicate this to candidates before the hiring process begins.

Values & Behaviors

Culture was discussed in the survey in many ways and often in reference to people — words like kind, smart, fun, hard working, collaborative, conscientious and driven were repeated throughout. That was encouraging, but we were back to that idea of a “feel” again on culture fit, and we thought we could do better to be more precise in our definition. Once again, we surveyed our employees to provide us with words that they felt described those who embody the Flatiron culture. This survey yielded a clear pattern of categories which helped us refine our 5 core values and behaviors:

  • Vision: Make no little plans — build for scale, create for the whole world and execute short term goals in view of long-term strategy.
  • Attitude: Radiate positivity — be nice, have fun, find what to love about your work and surroundings.
  • Execution: Be scrappy — get things done, be resourceful, embrace change and thrive in moments of ambiguity.
  • Performance: Pursue Mastery — be a beginner, always be learning, do a lot better and value feedback.
  • Teamwork: Work Together — collaborate, listen intently and over-communicate. embrace transparency and empower others to succeed.

When I think of our employees who exemplify these values, I see engaged, high performing individuals who are finding professional growth at Flatiron School. It is a useful framework for us today as well as one that is aspirational. These values provide us with a reminder of who we are as much as who we want to be as we continue to grow. We’ve just begun to develop this into a formal values/behavior assessment tool as a part of our hiring process (which is being led by our Director of Engineering).

Career opportunity

It’s clear that people who join a growth company are seeking a culture of growth for their career. However, what that career growth actually looks like might be quite different than what they expected. At an early stage company, it is difficult to speak about career paths that haven’t been developed, or what type of opportunity might emerge in time as the company evolves along the bumpy path of growth.

Those who have found career opportunities at Flatiron School often stepped into a vacuum created by our growth and created clarity where there was ambiguity. Frequently this included taking on a new role, likely even defining it, while also working to hire for their old role. At our last quarterly company meeting, we reviewed our data and discovered that 72% of all staff with 12 months or more at Flatiron School have had a promotion. Typically, those were career opportunities that we could not even have described 12 months (sometimes even 3 or 6 months) before they materialized. We’ve come to realize that individuals who want more structure and a clearly defined path to advancement in their careers will likely find a better fit with a more mature organization than a growth company of our size — and we speak candidly with candidates about this.

Working at a growth company is a unique and challenging experience. It can be both exhilarating and exhausting. Understanding what “culture fit” actually means to your organization and how you will assess for it is key to unlocking the potential of your employees.

Our experience at Flatiron School has taught us the following:

  1. Be precise about defining your culture fit.
  2. Go straight to your employees to understand how likely they would be to recommend working at your company — and be sure to ask why or why not (the most helpful information you’ll receive)
  3. Categorize the survey feedback to identify major categories of your existing culture
  4. Consider whether you are still left with a catch-all “culture” category that requires a dedicated follow on survey. You may benefit from going deep to identify your values and behaviors.
  5. For each category, consider how effectively you communicate it, both internally and externally, and design assessment tools for your culture fit into your hiring process to be used consistently across your hiring teams.

Every time we hire, we consider whether a candidate will be a good culture fit, as I imagine you do too. With a more precisely defined culture, our hiring conversations can now take on new layers that I believe will result in better matches for both us and prospective employees.