Cultural fit: A cop-out for discrimination?

by Cameron Edmond31 Oct 2013

The concept of cultural fit as an element of the hiring process has been increasingly prevalent in recent years. Sir Richard Branson described ‘hiring for personality’ as a priority on his LinkedIn blog.

“There is nothing more important for a business than hiring the right team. If you get the perfect mix of people working for your company, you have a far greater chance of success. However, the best person for the job doesn’t always walk right through your door,” he wrote.

However, while Branson may champion the idea of cultural fit, it is not without its detractors.

A primary criticism of the term ‘cultural fit’ is not its use in finding strong and driven personalities, or the ‘ideal’ personality type for your team, but rather its undefined qualities giving an excuse for discrimination.

“I know a number of women who have been turned down from jobs because they ‘weren't a culture fit.’ … ‘Not a culture fit’ is used as a reason to turn people down for a job. Once they are there, it's a way of kicking them out of the culture,” Shanley Kane, product manager at Basho, told Fast Company.

“People will say ‘not a culture fit’ without having to define what that means. It's almost this sacred space which lets them uncritically reject people from the company or from the team. On the surface level it tends to mean ‘We just don't like you. You're different from us. We don't want to figure out how to work with you’.”

The criticism is echoed amongst industry professionals, with Jeremy Bohonos, career advisor at Indiana University stating concern about students from minority groups being questioned about their ‘fit’ at an organisation during an interview.

This raises problems, especially when, for example, a workforce is  predominantly Caucasian. In such instances minority ethnicities may struggle to ‘fit’ with the culture, and therefore be overlooked.

“And if workplace environments continue to be largely defined in terms of white cultural norms, then what chance will minorities ever have to ‘fit’?” Bohonos wrote in a blog post.

Bohonos believes a focus on cultural fit detracts from what interviews should truly be about: qualifications, skills, experience, and how suited they are to the role – not the ‘culture’ that surrounds it.

Justin Connor, conversation designer at Second Road, told HC that not only is cultural fit likely to risk discrimination, but it may also result in a narrow view within the organisation.

“You end up with these ridiculous words that have so many meanings behind them. Quite the reverse of ‘cultural fit’ is ‘cultural misfit’ where you have a process or ways of allowing diversity to exist … what this does is it provides friction and you need friction. If you just have a bunch of people who think the same as each other it can get myopic,” he explained.

Connor stated that to work towards a great cause and purpose, many different skills and a diverse culture is necessary. He believes that some organisations conflate their purpose with the concept of cultural fit, and this is fundamentally flawed.

“Cultural fit as a purpose is self-serving, and it is fundamentally not going to take you anywhere. Organisations are about having an impact, not serving themselves.”

 

 

COMMENTS

  • by MM 31/10/2013 3:05:22 PM

    Cultural fit is also a good excuse for age discrimination. I have often heard the words "we are a young vibrant company" and need someone to fit our company. They reject any applicant who in not under 25. Of course, they haven't yet met the person or talked to them and can't actually derive their attitudes or thoughts from a resume, but it is the excuse used all the time anyway

  • by Grant 31/10/2013 3:12:10 PM

    Unfortunately, as with many good ideas in theory, sometimes the application ends up being unfair. Ideally you want people with the right attitude for the job but that should not mean you only hire one type of person or that you do not explain to people why they might not have been the right 'fit' for the job. Having a workplace with a diverse range of views is the only way to encourage robust discussion that leads to genuine progress.

  • by Non Smoker 31/10/2013 3:19:29 PM

    I joined a team of 10 and I am the only non smoker. Fortunately the other 9 go outside to smoke, however that leaves me on my own :(

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