How Important is Culture When Hiring in the Public Sector, and Can You Change It?


As the US enjoys the lowest unemployment rates since the mid 1950’s, companies are experiencing challenges in hiring and retaining employees. Top performers are being heavily pursued, and exceptional candidates often times have multiple offers to choose from.

All companies are affected by this current imbalance between Supply and Demand, whether they know it or not.

If a company is in hiring mode, they would be wise to think of ways to competitively court potential candidates and strategically stand out amongst the competition.

In addition, all companies need to pay attention to attrition rates, and actively take steps to reduce it, whenever possible.

Studies show that one of the main reasons that hires do not ‘stick’ is because there is not a good cultural match.  Therefore, it is more important than ever before to make sure that not only is your new hire a strong match in terms of skill set, it is equally important to ensure that you are providing an inviting, positive culture for your team.

Make no mistake about it, every single working group of people has a culture, whether they consciously created it, or not. 

By consciously creating your own Company Culture, and working hard towards making your company an inclusive, positive, upbeat place to work, you will reap multiple rewards.

Pay attention to team members that positively contribute to the company as a whole, and also take a close look at those divisive individuals that every working group of people is bound to have, at some point.

According to a study published by Harvard Business School, a front line toxic employee results in turnover costs exceeding $12,500. A pernicious employee in a leadership role will easily cost a company 4 times that amount.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Laurie Doering, Laurie is the Superintendent at Crane Elementary School District. Laurie has a tremendous background in education, and has been in a leadership role for the past twenty years. Laurie knows how important it is making a good match between an employee and the organization’s culture when creating top performing teams.

Laurie was kind enough to share with me her absolutes which she believes are critical to creating an inclusive, positive culture that allows everyone to thrive.

Doering follows this doctrine:

  • Creating a culture of CONTINUOUS FEEDBACK is paramount.
  • We want feedback, any and all feedback, Often, Loud and Clear

In order to improve, the hierarchy needs to be flattened so all voices are heard and respected.

In addition, positive relationships are paramount at work.  Nurturing those water cooler conversations actually helps the company thrive.

Tom Rath, the author of Vital Friends, shares some interesting statistics.  When employees have friends at work, they are more likely to be engaged in their work, miss less days and are less likely to leave the company.  Positive relationships help our organizations and we should proactively nurture these.

It seems so simple, yet studies show up to 62% of hiring managers in America today have not given any conscious thought to what type of culture they offer their employees.

Hiring for Skill vs. Hiring for Culture

When hiring for new roles within your group, give some thought as to how someone will fit into your current team. Matching up an applicant’s personality should be as important as qualifying them by their professional skills and experience.

Cover letters, online profiles, and resumes provide vital information regarding a prospect’s education, skills, and background. But the truth is that the majority of recruits—regardless of their background—undergo some degree of training. Skills can be developed over time but fitting in the organizational culture requires a mindset that’s willing to adjust and adapt to the new environment.

This underlines the importance of getting to know a candidate during the interview process. If done correctly, proper interviewing will provide management with the crucial information needed to make hiring decisions. According to an analysis published in Personnel Psychology, employees that fit well into the organization culture consistently recorded superior job performance as well as job satisfaction.

There are many ways to gauge a potential candidate’s fit. The primary one we suggest is utilizing Behavioral based interview style. By creating a scenario that reflects something that the person may realistically face on the job, and seeing how they react, will give you valuable information on how they are likely to perform on the job.

We also encourage hiring managers to employ tools that focus on personality testing. It makes sense to harness some of the amazing things that human behaviorists have developed over the past few years to predict how someone will behave in a specific type of setting. We have found terrific success utilizing both Predictive Indexing as well as DISC testing.  These tests will help   evaluate candidates primary characteristics and intrinsic motivators, comparing them to current and former employee profiles to provide the gift of foresight to hiring managers. It becomes much easier to predict how someone will perform in a setting when you can compare their DISC, or PI profiles against others with a similar profile that have worked in comparable settings.

Seeking Out Candidates from Similar Settings

Seeking out candidates from environments with a similar culture plays a key role in finding the right long-term match. It would be surprising if you were able to find someone excelling in a MainStreet Development role in Manhattan that could thrive in a small town in the Midwest. Likewise, in educational settings, the range of conditions ranging from the school grounds itself, to the student base to the parents and teachers that administrators are working with all are factors that should be taken into consideration when interviewing a candidate pool of potential applicants.

While there are exceptions to the rule, a prospect that has had successful experience working in a similar setting should be given more weight than a candidate that comes from working in a different environment.

Creating an environment that compliments the employees’ values and beliefs and allows them to excel is perhaps the strongest competitive advantage any group can have.

Since the vast majority of jobs in the public sector do contribute to people’s lives in very fundamental ways, care should be taken in positioning the advertising to stress the altruistic benefits that the role offers.

The goal is to evaluate candidates based on what your current culture is, to increase the chances of making a long-term match.

  • Take advantage of the tremendous tools now available to gauge applicants primary characteristics, and intrinsic motivators.
  • Remember that every single team has a culture, weather they intentionally created it, or not. Make sure that yours is a positive one.
  • Find out what incentives would be of most value to your employees, and offer them.

Are you finding it difficult to find exceptional candidates that also gel into your company? ISC offers executive recruitment services. With over 2 decades worth of experience in recruiting for multiple industries, we are sure to help your business find the right employees. Contact our Public Sector Recruiting Team to strategize on your current hiring needs.

Ann Zaslow-Rethaber is President of International Search Consultants, a leader in executive recruiter since 1999. Ann can be reached via e-mail at or direct dial at 888-866-7276.