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?