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The Water Cooler

A blog of fresh ideas and findings from organizational leaders and researchers on how they’re making work better, shared regularly.

Gusto hires for culture enhancement, not culture fit

Filed under: Hiring
Gusto hires for culture enhancement, not culture fit
See how a fast-growing company finds candidates who will not only thrive in their culture, but enhance it by using cross-functional interviews.

In addition to robust structured interviews to assess a candidate's role-related knowledge (coding abilities for software engineers, accounting skills for finance, etc.) we at Gusto, a payroll, benefits, and HR provider, run potential hires through a thoughtfully designed cross-functional interview to evaluate motivations and alignment with our mission and values. We call these “Watermelon” interviews.

When Gusto was founded in 2011, our co-founders Josh, Tomer, and Eddie re-gifted a watermelon from their landlord to their first employee, Davey, to welcome him to the company. The Watermelon program is a unique hiring experience that highlights the resourcefulness, vibrancy, and camaraderie at the foundation of Gusto. Our Watermelon interviewers are responsible for “picking the good melons” and identifying people committed to making Gusto a better place to work and thrive. In 2016, our team of 17 interviewers conducted 580 Watermelon interviews and we wound up making 230 hires.

The team interviews candidates who work in different disciplines from their own (e.g., an engineer may be interviewed by a marketer, a marketer by a sales rep, and so on). As a result, candidates gain an entirely new perspective on the community they may be joining and interviewers get to know a potential colleague outside of their core competencies. We do this to ensure future “Gusties” aren’t just well-qualified, but well-rounded.

Any organization can do cross-functional interviews. Here’s how we make it unique to Gusto:

  • We distilled our culture into four key attributes. At the start of the Watermelon program, we issued a company-wide survey asking how Gusties define Gusto’s culture. We looked closely at our top performers to determine what traits make a successful Gustie, and consolidated all this feedback into a few main buckets: a service mindset, intellectual curiosity, no ego, and the desire to embrace change.
  • We formed a Watermelon team and trained our interviewers. In selecting interviewers for our Watermelon team, we assessed the interview experience of each applicant, their self and peer nominations, and their tenure at Gusto. After putting together a diverse committee of Gusties to represent our community, the rest of our recruiting team, our CEO Josh, and our Head of Learning and Development Jill, partnered to facilitate an interactive training session and prepare our new cross-functional interviewers. We then had each potential interviewer shadow two interviews and “reverse shadow” (where they ran the interview and were shadowed by a recruiter) three times before they conducted Watermelon interviews on their own.
  • We built cross-functional interviewing into our hiring process. The Watermelon interview is the first scorecard that our hiring committee reads and a successful Watermelon interview is a strong indicator that we’ll extend an offer. You can see a sample scorecard here. 100% of hiring decisions at Gusto include a Watermelon interview, regardless of level or team.

The Watermelon Team

The Watermelon program helps us find Gusties from all kinds of backgrounds who could contribute diverse and important perspectives. At Gusto, while we evaluate whether candidates are motivated by our mission and whether their personal values align with our company values, we deliberately do not hire for “culture fit.” Because our goal is to find people who will do their best work here and make Gusto better, we look for individuals who will contribute to and ultimately enhance our culture, not conform to a nebulously defined, subjective mold. That’s why our Watermelon interviewers go through extensive training and shadowing so they can practice asking a specific set of questions that get to the heart of whether candidates exhibit the attributes we seek.

The Watermelon program has been fruitful for everyone involved (pun intended). About 30% of Gusto employees have reported wanting to participate in the program, and 95% of last year’s participants expressed interest in retaining their positions on the Watermelon committee. Our candidates have given us consistently positive feedback on this interview process and applauded our genuine interest in both their personal and professional journeys.