Communicating Your Organization’s Culture to Candidates

In our conversations with nonprofit hiring managers, we constantly hear how cultural fit is one of the most important criteria for hiring. A challenge for some nonprofits, however, is to realize that such considerations are just as important to jobseekers and that organizations need to be intentional about communicating their cultural elements throughout every stage of the hiring process. If done correctly, a hiring process can genuinely and effectively reflect an organization’s distinct personality and values.

Attributes of Organizational Culture

Organizational culture is characterized by the attitudes, experiences, beliefs and values of an entire organization. In the social sector, an organization’s culture is closely tied to its mission and programs. The attributes of an organization’s culture can be tangible, such as dress code, or intangible, such as shared values. When trying to describe your organization’s culture, think about some of the following questions:

Mission Connect:

How important is it that every employee be highly committed to the mission? How do individual staff members demonstrate that commitment and contribute to advancing the mission?

Leadership/Management Styles:

How is the staff managed? Is leadership a core value of the organization? How are decisions made and problems solved? Is the process collaborative or more individually driven?

Reporting Structure:

What does your organization chart look like? Is your organization hierarchical or flat?

Language and Communication:

Is there internal language used and understood only by staff? Are there specific terms or key messages in external communication? How would you describe your group’s communication style?

Physical Work Environment:

Does your organization have offices, cubicles, or open workspaces? Are there common areas like reception, a kitchen, or a lunch room?

Staff Diversity:

Is diversity of backgrounds, experiences, or beliefs important to your organization? Why? Is it essential that staff share racial, ethnic, or economic backgrounds with the communities you serve?

Interpersonal Dynamics:

How does the staff interact? Is the mood structured, intense, impersonal, collegial, etc.?

Titles:

Are staff titles important? How do titles affect the way employees perceive their own role and others?

Traditions and Celebrations:

How does your organization acknowledge personal successes and milestones? What social events are institutionalized?

Work Pace:

Do staff work at a fast, moderate, or leisurely pace? How would you describe their work/life balance?

It is important to think through the various attributes of your organization’s culture before launching your search. To find examples of how cultural aspects are demonstrated, look to existing materials, such as annual reports, grants, and marketing collateral. Speak with staff across the organization and probe their opinions about the questions listed above. Observe the physical and interpersonal environments. Most importantly, look to how your organization’s mission and values are (and are not) translated across the overall culture.

Communicating Your Organization’s Culture

Communicating aspects of your organization’s culture begins well before you meet a candidate in person or they observe the organization firsthand. There are opportunities to share information about your organization’s culture at every stage of the hiring process. For example:

When developing a job announcement or posting:

• Include your full mission statement in the introduction or footer.

• Offer an explicit description of the organization’s culture and/or values, such as, “We work in a collaborative, team-based environment. There are no private offices in our space and camaraderie is a value shared among all staff.”

• If being results-oriented is an important aspect of your organization’s culture, share statistics of program successes or other results.

• When listing job requirements, use language that mirrors specific values such as “Collaborate with…” or “Produce results on…”

• When listing candidate qualifications, include specific values or competencies that you are seeking, such as “entrepreneurial” or “flexible.”

• If diversity is an attribute of your organization’s culture, make sure that is communicated throughout the job posting. At the very least, include your organization’s “equal opportunity employer” statement.

• When posting the position, choose channels that reflect your organization’s culture whenever possible.

When interviewing candidates:

• Use a manner of outreach that reflects your organization’s communication style. Some groups use rigid form language while others use more a more casual and informal approach. The most important thing is consistency to your brand and culture.

• Reflect your organization’s culture in your office décor, particularly in the reception area. Display photos, annual reports, constituent artwork or other collateral material for candidates to peruse while waiting.

• Conduct the interview at the location where the new hire will work, such as in the office headquarters, field office, or program sites.

• Probe on candidates’ fit with your organization’s values in interview and follow-up questions, but be careful not to “lead” candidates. For example, to probe on the value of teamwork, inquire about their past experience working in collaborative environments, including asking about the challenges that they faced.

• Share candid information about work/life balance, work pace, and other realities of the environment.

• Give or lend videos, marketing collateral, or other materials to candidates for them to take home.

• Practice what you preach. If you pride yourself on being a friendly organization, give candidates a warm welcome and introduce them to other staff. For organizations that value metrics and results, consider sharing important organizational data, strategic plans, evaluations, etc.

When conducting interview follow-up and extending offers:

• In the period following the interview, consider inviting high-level candidates to staff meetings and/or external events such as fundraisers or gatherings, if possible.

• If they haven’t already done so, allow candidates to visit program sites or other places where your services are delivered. Even for non-program roles, it can be very helpful for candidates to see programs in action in order to get a better sense of organizational values and culture.

• If candidates are returning to the office for additional interviews or meetings, schedule some informal time for the candidate to spend with other staff. At the very least, allow the candidate to meet his/her direct reports or peers if this didn’t already occur.

• When making an offer, present the offer in a style that reflects the culture. And when communicating regrets to denied candidates, make sure you do so in a way that reflects respect for others.

Case Study: Massachusetts Public School Performance

For Massachusetts Public School Performance (MPSP), an educational nonprofit that helps school leaders use real-time data to improve instruction and increase student achievement, the ability to produce results sets the tone for its organizational culture. 
“Our culture is results-driven,” said Client Program Officer John Maycock in a recent interview with Commongood Careers. “Our school-clients place high performance demands on their students and expect to see results. We try to set the same expectations for our staff.”

To communicate these attributes of its culture during the hiring process, MPSP starts with the job description. “When we write each job description, we make sure to clearly state the results-driven nature of our organization. This is the most important aspect of our culture for applicants to understand,” said Maycock. In addition to focusing on results, he describes the organization’s culture as “growth-oriented, team-driven, and non-hierarchical.”

Each job description tries to convey the teamwork and non-hierarchical aspects of the culture by listing responsibilities such as “work on multi-functional teams across the entire organization” and “collaborate with all staff on projects.”

During the interview stage, MPSP involves the entire team in the process. “It’s important for everyone to get a sense of the candidate and vice versa,” noted Maycock.

The interview also includes direct questions posed to the candidate about their experience in results-oriented, deadline-driven environments. Candidates are asked to talk about scenarios that demonstrate their ability to handle multiple projects, meet deadlines, and deliver results. In turn, the interviewers try to be as transparent as possible about the results-oriented aspects of MPSP’s culture. Candidates are given access to growth plans, and challenges and successes are shared. “The interview process is not only about evaluating the position-specific and overall cultural fit of the candidate, but also helping the candidate understand as much about our organizational culture as possible,” explains Maycock.

In the period from extending an offer through on-boarding the new hire, MPSP makes an effort to continue to make their organizational culture transparent and accessible. Top candidates are matched up with staff and encouraged to schedule informal conversations. When a new hire comes on board, they are given an outline of workplace expectations and are also integrated into the team from day one.

As Maycock put it, “We expect our staff to be integrated into our results-driven and solution-oriented culture from the get-go. Making them feel part of the team helps to promote that organizational expectation of high performance and results, a quality which characterizes our entire culture, our clients, and the students we serve.”