Last week’s post raised some of the fallacies regarding onboarding as well as its inadequacies (see How Onboarding Can Feel Too Much Like Waterboarding). In hindsight, much of what goes wrong with onboarding can often be attributed to an unexpected mismatch between the new hire and the organization — even when the candidates seemed superlative and the references were glowing.

How do you know what people will really be like once they’re hired? Observe how candidates behave and believe what they tell you.

Observations Are Data

Of course you’ve asked all candidates many questions about their experience and whether they’ve faced challenges like the ones they’ll encounter in your organization. And of course you’ve asked them how they would handle one hypothetical situation after another.

Could you tell — maybe from the way they tapped their foot, or how still they sat, or how they looked around the room as if searching for the right answer — whether they were speaking from the heart or only trying to tell you what they thought you wanted to hear? And could you tell — perhaps because they got just a little looser, a little more intense, a little more excited, perhaps — when they were really being themselves?

Try not to get caught up in candidates’ natural enthusiasm or turned off by their efforts to find the right answer. Instead, listen very carefully to each one and pay particular attention to the moments when they were comfortable and somewhat more natural, talking about experiences they were proud of or initiatives they enjoyed working on. And listen particularly closely to their descriptions of the obstacles they’ve overcome, what they see as their strengths, how they interact with others, and how they handle mistakes and problems.

Examine the Fit

Because whatever the candidates say, they mean it. If the story includes heroics or a willingness to do or die on the company’s behalf, then assume that they will bring a death-defying stance to your organization. And think twice about whether you actually want heroics and cliff-hanging — or if those things run counter to your culture.

The way the candidates describe themselves and their interactions with others in prior cultures where they’ve worked will tell you a lot about how they’ll operate when they finally get to yours. If they’ve never worked successfully and happily in an environment like yours, think 100 times before you hire them. Their success will be contingent not only on what they can do, but how they will do it within the norms of your organization.

Don’t Make Mountains out of Molehills

For example, if you have a basically collaborative culture — one in which people tend to check with each other before major decisions, hang out together after work, and share victories and defeats as well as birthdays and home-baked treats — then a lone wolf mountain climber may not fit in productively even if she has had consistent successful experience climbing taller mountains than your group has only ever dreamed about.

The probability that she’ll drag people to the summit with her is small — more likely, she’ll get frustrated and break out of the pack again. Her grit and drive may take her to the top, but she could leave some of your other crucial people stranded along the way to face the elements by themselves.

But the reverse is also true. If, for instance, a candidate talks about the fun of late-night work-and-pizza deadline sessions, but your culture prizes solo efforts, tightly defined work hours, or both, then you can be sure that there will be more disjunction to overcome than just explaining a new computer system.

Even the most structured, consistent onboarding program will not change a person’s basic nature, or the behaviors that they’ve believed to be the foundation of their prior successes. So be sure that candidates are likely to fit in before you ask them to join your party. For everyone’s sake.