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 When Workplace "Culture Fit" Becomes Discrimination

Many companies are proud of their workplace culture and values. Increasingly, employers use “culture fit” as an essential factor in employment decisions, including hiring, promotions, and firing. Some human resource professionals argue that culture fit is more important than other metrics, such as experience and education.

However, workplace culture can be used to excuse illegal employment discrimination. If a hiring manager only hires candidates who reflect their racial background, gender, religion, or sexual orientation, culture fit is not a legal defense.

If you have suffered an adverse employment action because of culture fit, you should carefully scrutinize the circumstances surrounding the decision.

What is Workplace Culture?

Workplace culture is based on a company’s core values and ethics. When employees’ work styles and attitudes are consistent with their employer’s values, there is a “culture fit.”

Workplace culture can create a feeling of community within the workplace and help increase morale, job performance, and employee retention. Increasingly, job candidates are evaluated to determine whether they will mesh within a company’s social structure. Studies have shown that strong workplace culture can be financially beneficial. Engaged employees are more productive and healthier.

Workplace culture is associated with an organization’s ability to achieve its goals. Strong workplace culture drives positive outcomes when aligned with strategy and leadership. Whether the outcomes are for-profit or other ends, a workplace culture that encourages positivity, production, innovation, regulatory compliance, quality control, and other goals are likely to succeed.

Organizations take various approaches to develop shared beliefs, values, and understanding. Banners, wellness resources, rewards programs, mission statements, newsletters, social gatherings, and deliberate culture-creation efforts can help employees understand the organization’s values and types of tolerated behaviors.

However, employers can use culture fit as a rationale for employment discrimination. This often occurs when a company does not have a well-defined culture and inconsistent human resource processes. Until recently, relatively little attention has been paid to the relationship between workplace culture, discrimination, and harassment. Workplace culture can significantly determine whether harassment and other discriminatory behaviors are likely to occur. Employers in a healthy workplace are more likely to identify and address harassment and other unacceptable behavior.

An Undefined Workplace Culture Can Lead to Discrimination

In 2015, Lauren Rivera (an associate professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management) found that “culture fit” decisions often focus on personal values instead of corporate values. In other words, instead of focusing on a candidate’s ability to collaborate, accept criticism, or drive innovation, hiring managers were looking for candidates that shared their personal interests and experiences.

Undefined workplace culture can exclude diverse workers and lead to discriminatory employment actions. A hiring manager may feel that someone of a different race, ethnicity, religion, age, or sexual orientation may be “too different” to mesh within a corporate culture. This gut feeling may be completely unfounded and discriminatory.

To avoid discrimination, companies should define their culture and create hiring and succession plans that focus on their core values (and not on a shared affinity for French restaurants). These values may include efficiency, collaboration, and entrepreneurial spirit.

Once a company has defined its culture, it can implement systems that foster and help identify culture fit. Some best practices may include:

  • A clearly articulated values statement,
  • Structured interview questions that are consistently used to gauge culture fit,
  • Performance evaluations that are based on metrics and multiple data points,
  • Opportunities for mentoring, and
  • Diverse teambuilding opportunities.
  • These human resource systems aim not to weed out diverse candidates but to identify workers that embrace workplace values.

Discriminatory Culture Fit Decisions Hurt Companies

Evidence shows that diverse workplaces are more productive, profitable, and agile. And, a diverse workforce can more easily identify business and consumer trends in our increasingly multicultural economy.

If a corporate culture is too homogenous and static, there is a risk of “groupthink.” Groupthink happens when conformity leads to poor decision-making and suppression of different viewpoints. Groupthink can kill innovation, entrepreneurial thinking, and healthy discourse. On the other hand, respect for diverse opinions leads to debate and deeper analysis.

Companies that mask discrimination in culture fit decisions face high employee turnover and discrimination lawsuits.

Possible Signs of Culture Fit Discrimination

  • An adverse employment action based on culture fit may be discriminatory when:
  • Corporate culture is undefined or based on personal values,
  • The employer cannot explain why a diverse candidate was a poor culture fit,
  • Only diverse candidates are assessed for culture fit, and
  • Culture fit is only used in negative employment actions (like firings or demotions).

If you believe you are the victim of culture fit discrimination, you should carefully review your company’s policies, procedures, and implementation. If there is evidence of disparate treatment, you may have both state and federal discrimination claims.

Why Does Sexual Harassment Happen at Work?

The characteristics of individuals who are likely to engage in sexual harassment at work have not been studied deeply. Still, some studies suggest that harassers lack social conscience, are naive about sexual relationships, and engage in immature, irresponsible, manipulative, and exploitative behaviors. Other studies have shown that harassers are thought to overthink women’s criticism and rejection. Harassment may have more to do with aggression than seduction.

Men who strongly identify with other men in traditionally male-dominated workplaces may carry an “us vs. them” perception into harassing behaviors. An individual’s inability to regulate their emotions and situational factors in a workplace environment may lead to counterproductivity. Some people may be predisposed to sexual harassment, and some social situations may be conducive to sexual harassment.

Factors that may affect whether an individual will attempt to coerce a sexual interaction may include the experience of child abuse, previous sexual behavior, interpersonal skill deficits, negative gender-related attitudes, negative perceptions of peer behavior, and substance abuse. Sexual assault is likely influenced by a combination of factors, including an individual’s developmental and family history, personality, and environmental and societal influences.

How Does Organizational Structure Play Into Workplace Culture?

Individuals who work within an organizational structure and the choices an employer makes about structuring the work environment can influence workplace culture.

Small departments with little oversight can render employees more vulnerable to abusive behavior and less able to access protection if a manager disregards complaints or perpetrates the abuse. Organizational structures that make an employee’s advancement dependent on a relationship with another make it much riskier to report the abuse of that person. Physically isolated work areas can enhance the risk of abuse because there is less likely to be a coworker present to witness harassing behavior or intervene to stop it.

Additionally, risks have also been identified in workplace settings where employees rely on their employment for immigration status or basic sustenance. As a result, these employees are less likely to seek help. Environments where alcohol or drug use is prominent (such as in restaurants or nightclubs) tend to present greater risks of illegal interventions or harassment.

Do I Need a Lawyer?

Victims of employment discrimination have the right to file claims with the EEOC and similar state agencies or file lawsuits against their employer. You may be entitled to compensation for your lost wages and benefits, depending on the facts. You also may be eligible for reinstatement and punitive damages. A discrimination lawyer can help you evaluate your claim and advise you of your rights.

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