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When does Hiring for “Cultural Fit” become Discrimination?

I have read numerous discussions over the past year in HR magazines and on Linkedin discussing the importance of hiring employees that match your company’s culture.  The reason being, if I have three equally qualified candidates from which to choose, clearly at that point I must hire the individual who best fits my organization’s culture.  By doing so I should increase the chances that not only will I be satisfied with the employee but they will also be satisfied with the organization.  Employee satisfaction often walks hand in hand with employee retention and high employee retention usually means less expense for our company.  So hiring for cultural fit seems logical, right? 

Here’s the rub however.  When do we use the explanation of “Cultural Fit” as an excuse to discriminate?  I recently started a discussion on Linkedin regarding the prevalence of discrimination of not only groups such as minorities, women, and the elderly, but also Asians, the attractive, smokers and the obese.  As one commenter put it, “Cultural fit has become the new euphemism for discrimination.”  Further responses were varied.  Many took the stance that everyone had biases in one form or another and that we just needed to roll with the punches, stop whining essentially, and continue to put our best foot forward until you land with the organization that best appreciates you.   

After all, if you didn’t get the job HR could just argue that you didn’t fit in well culturally.  For example, one commenter said they turned down a qualified candidate because the person was, as she put it, a redneck and they didn’t think a redneck would work well with the customers.  “Redneck” if you didn’t already know, isn’t one of the EEOC’s protected classes.  In essence the qualified “redneck” candidate was not a cultural fit.  One commenter supported her by saying the organization’s needs were evaluated from the perspective of the customer and the candidate could not meet them.   

Another commenter said they refused to hire a candidate who, by his intense smell, obviously smoked.  Why?  Because it would bother other people in the office.  This is another example of cultural fit coming into play. 

Others took the stance that in no shape or form should discrimination be tolerated.  If the candidate is qualified, HR departments should give equal consideration to each candidate.  But is this really possible to do when the company’s profits are on the line?  Look at Hooters restaurants, for example, which for years have employed women who must have certain attractive physical characteristics.  Their high priced lawyers helped them win a lawsuit several years ago and they are still allowed to employ only women of a certain appearance.  If they did not wouldn’t their profits suffer?  Couldn’t a case be made that women of a certain appearance, and of course men were unable to effectively do the job as set forth by the company’s culture regardless of their past waitress/waiter experience?   

 If I’m obese and am turned down for a retail job for a sportswear company where most of the salespeople are attractive and fit, is this discrimination or was my failure due to a lack of cultural fit because management knew my overweight appearance would turn off customers?  Is this discrimination or rather a case of a lack of cultural fit affecting the organization’s bottom line?   

Are companies beginning to establish that candidates can be discriminated against under the pretense of cultural fit if their “smoker’s cough”, obesity, or even their rough around the edges “redneckery”, hurts profits or disrupts their colleague’s ability to perform well? 

If you’re a woman, or old, or of a different ethnicity organizations should give you fair consideration because these are attributes out of your control.  And yet if your personality or appearance is a cause for rejection whether you’re black, Indian, or even pregnant, can we say anyone is really protected?   

So the question continues to be when are we being discriminatory and when are we just looking out for the best interests of our company?  

About The Author

Ryder Cullison

Ryder has more than 10 years of experience working with retained search clients as a search professional. As a pioneer of Interview4 he has great knowledge of video interviewing. He writes about all things hiring and looks forward to engaging with his audience on topics of leadership, recruiting, candidate screening, and employee satisfaction. Follow him on Twitter: @hireintelligent and @cullison1

14 Responses to “When does Hiring for “Cultural Fit” become Discrimination?”

  1. April 18, 2012 at 5:19 pm

    Culture fit is an excellent question but how do you see that playing into discrimination?

    Companies base all kinds of “factors” in their hire decision, so any of those could be interpreted as discriminatory. I could see this (hire for fit) being discriminatory if companies are saying they hire for fit but do not use any quantitative, validated metric in their processes. I have studied this extensively for the book SHRM published: The Cultural Fit Factor, How to Create an Employment Brand to Attract, Retain and Repel the Right Employees. Would be happy to share more information with you. Culture and Fit seem to be topical at the moment. Lizz

    • April 19, 2012 at 7:52 am

      Hi Lizz:
      Thanks for your comments. I recently started a discussion regarding this topic on Linkedin and have received a great deal of responses from both sides. One commenter stated she believed “Cultural fit” had become the new euphemism for discrimination. Many commenters do not believe in hiring for cultural fit because they saw such practices as a means to discriminate against quality candidates. We have gone back and forth on this for nearly two weeks now.

    • July 3, 2012 at 3:48 pm

      Yes, they can as sad as that is. That’s why it’s so important to be ceuafrl about what you post in your profile, especially when it comes to pictures, or bad-mouthing a certain person through wall-postings or something. The best advice would be to make sure your profile is set so that only your friends can see it and only add people you trust. And don’t post a picture you wouldn’t want your boss/mom, etc. to see and don’t type something you would never say to someone’s face.

  2. Sudhakar
    April 19, 2012 at 12:23 pm

    It is an interesting discussion. However, I would point out that it would be mandatory to look for some specific job related characteristics (as you say, cultural fit) which are specific and appropriate to the job being interviewed for .
    Let’s say, if I run a physical wellness or health club like Gym, and I hire a receptionist or physical instructor who is heavier than a regular (or say, obese) , would he/she be right fit for the position whom my customers would look in for motivation. Or another example, if I run a health clinic and hire a receptionist who does not have good personal/physical hygiene. I am running a business and do not look for customers run away at the entrance door itself. Same goes for an employer. Job/work environment and other job related factors may differ, but the inner meaning is same.

    I would say it is not discrimination, it is a job requirement.
    Would you say if a job applicant does not have a required skill for the job hence is rejected is discriminated from other qualified applicants???

  3. July 3, 2012 at 4:16 pm

    An employer can fire you for any rsoaen (other than an illegal rsoaen as defined by EEO,ADA, etc.) if you are at will employee (you don’t have written employment contract). A store owner can do the same (as long as the prohibition isn’t motivated by a bias based on the above federal acts) . You have no right to shop in a store if the store objects to your behavior. Obviously, someone objected, or they would never know about the posting.

  4. September 7, 2014 at 9:28 pm

    I work for a non-profit organization. Direct Mail Processing, Inc in the Maryland area. I have been having problems with my immediate boss who is a European American. She has been rude, disrespectful, cruel to me from day one. So I start to complain about it I am an older worker and an African American. I have documented every incident. Last week she told me she doesn’t care what the other supervisors tell me, do it the way she says, only to learn later that the way the others supervisors told me was the right way. I complained to another supervisor. The following day about 3:45 pm I was called into the Manager’s Office. He told me that “I am not a good fit” he intended to fire me. I said you can’t fire me because I complain about the supervisor’s behavior. He then said to me okay I will give you two weeks I guess to stop complaining. When He said I am not a good fit, I knew he was talking about my race. I felt offended. When I told him that it was a personality problem with my immediate supervisor he said, “I am surprise you are taking the cowardly way out. I said I am not taking the cowardly way out. My supervisor doesn’t respect me and that has been since day one. It is a race problem. When I as my supervisor’s questions, she turned her nose up at me, blink her eyes, twist her mouth and mumble out the answer tot he question I ask her, so that I can’t understand what she is saying. She never said good morning to me for the past 4 months. She takes my work and throw it on my desk. If I get up to use the bathroom, she says I have got to stop jumping up and down. I took that she was calling me a monkey indirectly. Other black workers have resigned they refused to tolerate her racist behavior toward the black employees. Out of 300 employees there are only 15 black women and on black male. There are no blacks in supervisory positions. I have had the desire to get “European American people therapy” because I don’t understand why they have treated me with such contempt, disrespect and cruelty. I don’t understand them. So Friday should be my last day. I will be fired. I think it is a cultural bias there and a cesspool of “closet racist”. They get by with it.

  5. September 8, 2014 at 10:18 am

    Elizabeth, thank you for your candid and revealing comments. I am sorry to hear about your troubles at work and wish you the best in your job search. What a shame you have to go through this ordeal!

    If you are comfortable with technology you might try this site.
    They allow you to practice interviewing online and/or create a video intro. of yourself using your webcam which you could send to potential employers. The site is free.

  6. zuz
    August 20, 2015 at 3:14 am

    Hiring for cultural fit or personality is a condescending insult to employees hard and accomplishments. And yes it is discriminatory. Employees work hard to learn job skills, be good at what they do and get high GPAs. Hiring based on culturally fit or personality is an unfair and discriminatory practice. If mangers can not understand all candidates should be considered equally should they really be managers.

  7. LAK
    July 15, 2017 at 4:43 am

    If employers want “cultural fit”, maybe they need to use robots instead of people; let’s see how that works out

  8. Ronney Dean
    February 8, 2018 at 2:26 pm

    I went on an interview, met with H/R Personnel, the Director and the department manager for almost 2 hours. I was told that I met all the qualifications the position required. I waited almost a week to hear if I had gotten the position. I left that interview feeling assured that I have the job. I was told by the staffing manager that I didn’t get the job because of Cultural Differences. I was also asked in the interview if I would have a problem working with a staff of only women, I said no, not at all. That lead me to believe that the women staffers made the hire decision, not H/R, the Director nor the department manager.

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