Hiring for Culture Fit: Discrimination by Another Name?

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on March 30, 2015 10:50 AM

Putting together the best team possible can require finding not just candidates that are qualified, but who match the personality of a company, office, or management. In other words, hiring for "culture fit."

Increasingly though, corporate emphasis on culture fit has come under fire, as a spate of lawsuits accuse employers of using culture as a cover for discrimination. So, when does hiring someone who "fits in" cross the line into impermissible employment discrimination?

All Things Being Equal ...

When there are two equally qualified candidates, breaking a tie can come down to a "gut feeling," -- who seems like they'd do the best here? Those sort of instincts are often based on subtle signifiers, things like a candidate's appearance, personality, or favorite baseball team.

Cultural fit advocates argue that companies are best served when they select employees who mesh well with the corporate culture and management style, leading to better performance, satisfaction and retention. For some, qualifications don't even have to be equal for culture to trump. Skills can be taught, the adage goes, so hire for personality.

Problems arise, however, when hiring someone who is "one of us" means excluding qualified candidates because of superficial differences. Is the older candidate not the best cultural fit for the young start up? Will the woman applicant not mesh with the finance bros? Cultural fit can quickly become a smokescreen for old-fashioned discrimination.

The Culture Fit Feedback Loop

A recent lawsuit against Twitter demonstrates the risks of over-relying on cultural fit in hiring and promotions. Twitter, like many tech companies, is overwhelmingly male and white, with 70 percent of its workers being men (90 percent of its tech workers) and 59 percent of its workers being white -- 29 percent are Asian, other ethnicities make up only 12 percent of the company, and 4 percent of its leadership. According to former employee Tina Huang, who filed a gender discrimination class action suit against the company, this homogeneous make up is the result of a feedback loop whereby current employees and management hire and promote candidates who look and act like them.

Not only do such in-group favoritism open one up to a lawsuit, it can be bad business. Diversity in the workplace can be a key factor in driving innovation and growth, helping to bring new perspectives to issues. When asked to help HR draft interviewing or hiring guidelines, keep a more nuanced understanding of "culture fit" in mind.

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