Hiring at any company can be a slippery slope, as you must balance technical acumen with an applicants’ ability to fit into your established culture. As a family business advisor, I can see the stakes are even higher at a family firm, as potential employees’ ability to fit into the company’s culture should always trump their skill set.
The reason for this is quite simple; at a family business, the top values are typically loyalty and respect. Thus, regardless of how much knowledge applicants might have, if they’re seen as outliers, people who will never conform to expected behavioral norms, hiring them probably will not be successful.
Here are a couple examples that prove how important culture fit is at family businesses:
- A young employee was dissatisfied with her manager, so she went over his head to throw him under the bus to upper management. “Upper management,” i.e., family members, was horrified at that behavior because what came through to them was that this employee lacked loyalty.
- An accounting manager who was used to making hiring decisions on his own at his previous company failed to get approval from the “powers that be” when filling an open position. That was not acceptable and led those “powers” to wonder whether this employee was a true team player.
It seems clear that neither of these non-family employees understood the “hidden rules” that are often present at a family business — but part of the blame might lie with family members, who must be transparent about their expectations. In my experience with family business consulting, the rules are often different at a family business. For instance, non-family members may not have access to information they’re used to having — so it’s important family members are as clear as possible during the onboarding process.
Of course, it’s best to weed out potential bad fits during the interview process, rather than finding out you’ve erred once someone has been hired. One way to do that is to identify what has and hasn’t made non-family members successful, so you can be on the lookout for “red flags.” It’s also important to articulate your values during an interview, with an eye toward gauging whether there is alignment with the applicant.
Rather than using a standard interview format, it’s best to conduct a behavioral interview, where you ask potential employees how they’ve handled specific situations in the past, focusing on the following five criteria:
Some poor fits will be clear — such as a high-energy, intense New Englander interviewing for a position at a laid-back family business in the South — while others may take more scrutiny. It’s almost like interviewing for a new family member or an organ transplant recipient — and trying to eliminate the possibility of rejection.
The moral of this story is that technical expertise certainly matters, but not to the exclusion of aligning non-family members’ values with yours.