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

However, workplace culture can be used as an excuse for illegal employment discrimination. If a hiring manager only hires candidates that reflect his or her 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 a strong workplace culture can be financially beneficial. Engaged employees are more productive and healthier.

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.

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 focused 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.

An 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 unsubstantiated 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.
  • The goal of these human resource systems is not to weed out diverse candidates, but to identify workers that embrace its 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 multi-cultural economy.

If a corporate culture is too homogenous and static, there is 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.

Additionally, companies who 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 their implementation. If there is evidence of disparate treatment, you may have both state and federal discrimination claims.

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. Depending on the facts, you may be entitled to compensation for your lost wages and benefits. You also may be eligible for reinstatement and punitive damages. An employment lawyer can help you evaluate your claim and advise you of your rights.