THE BLOG

If the Culture Fits... What Zappos and Other Employers Look For in New Hires

06/05/2014 05:11 pm ET | Updated Aug 05, 2014

A friend of mine who works in HR tells the story of a woman he once interviewed for a customer service job. He asked, "What is the thing you liked least about your previous position?" She replied, "Having to deal with so many people."

If this anecdote weren't so pitiful, it might be funny. Sure, it makes a good case for the importance of practicing interview skills before the real event, but the big question is this: Why was this woman applying for a customer service job in the first place? Whatever happened to career counseling?

Zappos, the online shoe retailer that is "powered by service," recently took radical steps to avoid such frustrating encounters: eliminating job postings and traditional interviews altogether. Adam Auriemma reports in The Wall Street Journal that Zappos has created a social network called Zappos Insiders in order to develop a pipeline of promising candidates for the 450 openings they expect to fill this year. Zappos' recruiters and other staff interact online with interested applicants over a period of time, getting to know them and gauging their potential value to the company before they get to the face-to-face stage. Auriemma notes that "recruiters ... will spend time pursuing candidates in the Insiders group with digital Q&As or contests, events that they will use to help gauge prospective hires' cultural fit."

Zappos may be out front (or out there?) with their technique, but they're far from the only company trying to gauge job applicants' cultural fit. Many corporations now put "fit" near the top of their talent acquisition check-list. They're looking for people whose values, beliefs, and work style are compatible with that of the company and who will thrive in the company's unique environment.

This is not fluffy stuff. In Fortune, Ethan Rouen cites studies by Corporate Executive Board's Brian Kropp to assert that "almost half of an employee's success in the first 18 months on the job can be attributed to how the employee fits in with others in the organization, while the rest of his success depends on whether he can do the job."

And it's not all about the benefits to business. Studies have shown that employees who fit in well with the work culture, their supervisors and peers "had greater job satisfaction, identified more with their company, were more likely to remain with their organization, were more committed, and showed superior job performance."

Building a workforce where everyone "fits" doesn't imply homogeneity, which breeds group think -- a fatal flaw in a competitive global economy. Most employers strive for the right balance between fit and inclusion, knowing that diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and abilities are essential in fostering the creative friction that drives innovation, continuous improvement, and competitive advantage in a dynamic marketplace. It is possible to achieve both. "Properly handled," Micah Solomon wrote for Forbes, "fit assessment always focuses on what is needed to be a contributing member of the organization," as opposed to what is needed to be just like everybody else.

Zappos also intends to use the Insiders network to find candidates who have "passion for the company," according to the WSJ piece. That suggests knowledge and enthusiasm about the company's products, services, and target market, and an eagerness to learn and flex with changing conditions and emerging business opportunities.

Other employers are looking for passion, as well. The National Retail Federation recently launched a campaign that invites job seekers to "Pick Your Passion" in modern retail. The NRFF is hoping to light the fires of talented career-seekers who want to be a part of what's happening in e-commerce, internet security, paperless transactions, communications, graphic design and marketing, event planning, global distribution, and more. Don't knock it 'til you've seen their infographic and learned that 44 percent of retail jobs are not the sales clerk positions we often love to bash.

All this presents a big challenge for the colleges and workforce development agencies that prepare people for work in the service sectors and that are already struggling to keep on top of rapidly-changing, technology-driven skill requirements. Technical skills are vitally important, of course, but we'll fail to adequately prepare job-seekers for the new world of work if we focus entirely on the "hard" competencies that are in many ways easier to teach than the "soft" ones.

Perhaps there's a lesson to be taken from Zappos. Perhaps what's required to prepare candidates for new customer-oriented jobs is less transactional and more organic -- a new learning culture that seeks, cultivates, practices, and rewards curiosity, passion, people skills, and flexibility. This is a need only educators can fill. Companies will use a variety of means to assess it (a social network, an interview, a test), but they won't -- indeed, can't -- try to develop it in people they have already hired.

Josh Patrick wrote about this to a business audience in the New York Times: "In the end, no matter what technical skills your candidates possess, you cannot let them join your company if they do not fit in. Technical skills can be taught. I don't think belief systems can."