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?  

Views: 3376

Comment by Raphael Fang on April 20, 2012 at 8:21pm

Many years ago, I was hired because of my education and background.  I accepted the position without knowing that I was not a cultural fit with that organisation.  I lasted 6 months there.  Although I was able to accomplish the tasks that I was assigned to, but I often felt alone in the office.   I was making good money, but I wasn't able to stay in that environment for 40 hours/week.  

Our personal feelings will eventually dictate what we are going to do.

Comment by Suresh on April 21, 2012 at 11:11am

Some of us (regardless of ethnicity, race, language, religion and anything else) will never fit it in some one else's culture or some corporate culture. To me it felt like a constant moving target..

I am pretty sure thats one of the primary motivations for Entrepreneurs to start something...to create an organization around their own culture or values or beliefs.

Comment by Bobby Davis on April 22, 2012 at 5:27pm

Good comments . . . one and all and a great article on a tough subject matter.  Being an old timer in this business, I've seen all kinds of ways people try to hire the preferred fit for any one position and some are valid, i.e. communication skills come to mind for one thing. But then we have preference for miniorities when you have a "white guy" who is the perfect fit, but client will wait for a woman or minority . . . Did you know someone from India was a minority?  I didn't until I work with a Pharma company who wanted a diversity candidate for R&D spot.  In the past few months, I've worked with a startup company who only wants "young people" (I decided it was a good thing they didn't know how old I was ;) and another only wanted "white male" not a white female although she was more qualified for the position - this was the preference of the hiring manager and boldly stated. Did she have a thing for guys or what?  Another company said, "no Indians, you can't believe anything on their resumes!"  So we have blatant discrimination going on all the time unfortunately.  What happen to hiring the best candidate who fits the job description and meets the criteria for relo, salary, etc?  If someone is meeting with customers or is a Big 4 consultant, I can see where the person needs to look good and have excellent communication skills, but "the equal opportunity act" and "non discrimination hiring" just doesn't seem to be what it was designed to be especially when you have the government paying companies to hire minorities and the most qualified person happens to be a "white guy".  That is not equalization, that is reverse discrimination and I fear it will only continue. 

Comment by Ryder Cullison on April 23, 2012 at 11:32am

Recruiter comments seem to differ from those in HR who aren't concerned with cultural fit so much as litigation and employing all the practices they learned in diversity training. I posted a similar discussion on Linkedin and though many of the commenters opinions clashed with one another, many did not agree with cultural fit nor did they look at it as a benefit to the candidate.  Many of the responses on here however have examined how detrimental a lack of fit can be to the candidate.  HR's take seems to be that hiring for cultural fit hurts the candidate.  Very interesting. 

Comment by Cora Mae Lengeman on April 23, 2012 at 12:06pm

Ryder, do you think everyone should be hired based on their resume - after it has been proven to be correct?  No interviews so no discrimination? 

I have many clients that have hired someone not qualified but they fit culturally so they wanted them on the team - and it turned out they were great for the company.  I have never had a company hire on skills alone and say it was a success.  The cultural fit is big part of the recruiting process.

Companies are in business to make money.  They do that by hiring the best people for their company.

Comment by Ryder Cullison on April 23, 2012 at 12:21pm

Cora, I agree with you 100%.  I think though that what many HR people worry about is that people use "Cultural Fit" as an excuse to discriminate and only hire people like themselves which in the end can be detrimental to the company because like-minded people generally present only one point of view.  Plus they feel cultural fit may give people an excuse not to hire minorities, women, elderly and so on.  I agree you can't hire on skills alone and I think we should exercise good judgement when hiring people who we like but not get too carried away in hiring clones of ourselves.  We often need people with differing points of view to reign us in.

Comment by Valentino Martinez on April 23, 2012 at 1:59pm


It is presumptuous for some to think that some work place cultures are not in need of better diversity, a safety fix, or some HR sanctions before outside entities like OSHA, EEOC, OFCCP, EPA, the Attorney General's office, or a Grand Jury takes action.   

Frankly, some work place cultures have proven to be detrimental to employees, generally and specifically, e.g., ENRON, WORLDCOM, Anderson Consulting, Gulf Coast BP, sweatshops, etc.

HR’s role is to protect both the employer and employees alike. Sometimes their actions seem counter culture but that depends on which end of the cultural issue you are attached.  With the exception of those "great places to work" discrimination is alive and well in some work places and thrives when it is not confronted.   So, the answer to the question,

When does Hiring for Cultural Fit become Discrimination?...When clear and present discriminatory activity exists in a cultural context in the work place.


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