“Culture Fits Only” is the Jim Crow 2.0 “Whites Only” Sign

Certain jobs were reserved “for whites only.”

It’s time to expose this discriminatory hiring practice. The “culture fit” excuse has turned into a way for companies to get away with discrimination. Many companies pride themselves in their strong company cultures, which is great if it isn’t used as a mask to cover up racism, sexism and other types of discrimination when bringing new people into their organizations and offering promotions.

The purpose of a company culture is to ensure that everyone is on the same page in terms of mission, values, goals, attitudes and practices in an organization. Whether expressly defined or not, the culture of an organization derives from the shared values and behaviors of the employees as well as the decisions they make, the way they manage their teams and how they handle business transactions. Some companies may offer a more casual work environment while others may be more traditional. Some may be team-based where open communication is encouraged while others may be more focused on individual contributions. Workplace culture is reflected in a company’s hiring decisions, customer satisfaction, working environment, dress code, benefits, and all other areas of their operations. Intentional development of company culture is usually done to encourage employees to work well together, do great work and to make customers happy.

The idea of company, or organizational, culture sounds great. I mean, who wouldn’t want a positive work environment? No one wants to go to work in a toxic environment or work with a bunch of jerks. But here’s the problem, companies have started hiring for “culture fit” and it’s turned into a dangerous anti-diversity practice that is used to exclude people from the workplace, making discriminatory disparities even worse.

I have spoken to many hiring managers throughout my career who have used the “culture fit” excuse as a reason not to hire someone too many times to count. The feedback I received was usually the same story — they had the skills and seemed like they could do the job just fine, their references were great, but they just wouldn’t fit in with the team. And when I asked them to elaborate on how they wouldn’t fit in, they really couldn’t say much other than mention something about their communication style or personality but weren’t able to give specific details.

Another common “culture fit” excuse was that they were confident that they could do the job just fine but they couldn’t elaborate an answer to their question or didn’t answer in the same way that they or someone on their team would answer and so they immediately dismissed the candidate. After further review, their teams tended to look and think the same with little to no diversity.

Companies that interview candidates for jobs might agree that some candidates have the credentials, skills and experience to do the jobs. And they may have amazing references. They just aren’t a “culture fit” because they communicate differently or some other excuse that they don’t want to admit to (i.e. they look different than me). It’s easy to identify the discrimination against people based on race, ethnicity, age and other obvious differences. Another common “culture fit” excuse that may not be as easy to identify to an outsider is neurodivergent individuals. In the case of people with autism, they may be very well qualified to do their jobs but their social interactions and communication skills may be impaired or lacking. They may suffer from extreme anxiety and not do well in job interviews because their communication styles are different. And so they reject great candidates due to not being a “culture fit.”

You’re highly skilled but so what? What’s your quirk?

People are so caught up in their biases, both conscious and unconscious, that they have gotten away from the goal of finding a skilled candidate. When companies add “culture fit” into their hiring processes they are giving a green light to discriminate. This doesn’t only set them up for discrimination lawsuits but also goes against any and all diversity efforts that they are trying to achieve.

People tend to like those who are similar to themselves. So when they interview candidates they are going to be biased towards candidates who look and act them. They’ll overlook and dismiss candidates who are different from them but who may be more qualified and then give the “culture fit” excuse as the reason they weren’t selected. They’ll choose less skilled candidates who are most similar to them. And then, once again, use the “culture fit” excuse saying, “fitting in with the team” is the most important thing, an excuse I’ve heard dozens of times.

Culture fit alone should never be a reason for declining candidates.

If you want to run a successful diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) campaign, or just be fair and nondiscriminatory, never, ever allow culture fit to be a reason for declining candidates. All candidates should be assessed on the same merit and interview panels should be diverse. Obviously, nobody wants toxic people on their team and when you have a good company culture it is important to get the right people in the door. But right doesn’t mean the same.

Differing views and experiences make the best companies. When you have a diverse, welcoming environment people perform their best. They are happier and less stressed out. A diverse team is also able to bring their differing experiences, ideas and thought processes to create innovative and unique ideas resulting in higher profits and more success.

Some companies only assess and interview candidates for “culture fit” and their skills and abilities to do the job are not important. I recently learned about the interview process of Flywheel, a WordPress hosting platform. I don’t normally like to call out companies by name but this company is the perfect example of what not to do when hiring.

Here is a review from someone on Glassdoor who interviewed with them.

https://www.glassdoor.com/Interview/Flywheel-Interview-Questions-E1362903.htm

In the Glassdoor example above, what does a candidate’s favorite restaurant have to do with a Product role? This is similar feedback I heard from someone I know who also recently interviewed with them for another role. They didn’t ask questions about the ability to do the job but asked questions such as what the candidate’s “quirk” was and what TV shows they watch. This is blatant discrimination and something that any HR department would strongly advise against, due to the potential legal implications.

I then looked up the reviews from Flywheel employees on Glassdoor. There were a lot of positive reviews about the company which isn’t surprising based on the fact that they only hire for “culture fit” but there was one that particularly stuck out to me.

https://www.glassdoor.com/Reviews/Flywheel-Reviews-E1362903_P2.htm

Sexist and racist? Not surprising based on their hiring practices but I wanted more context so I looked up their a photo of their team and, of course, see for yourself below. Aside from a few clear diversity hires on their rather large team, they all look similar to one another.

https://getflywheel.com/about/

How are companies like Flywheel getting away with these practices? Even cases that aren’t as extreme are still very problematic and preventing real change and social justice to occur.

Look for and hire candidates who have the skills and experience for the job and who also add something to your company’s culture.

It’s time to stop this discriminatory hiring practice and to stop allowing it to be acceptable to hire people under the discriminatory umbrella of “culture fit.” When evaluating candidates stop looking for ways in which they are similar to the team and how they fit into your company’s culture. Instead consider that they have differing experiences and ideas and see how they can positively contribute those to your organization. What can they bring to the table to diversify and improve things?

It’s time that we accept the fact that hiring based on “culture fit” is racist, sexist, and discriminatory. When, and only when, we accept this then we can work to change it and to work towards a fair, just workplace, and ultimately, a better society.

Mom & Wife | Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Strategy Consultant | HR, Recruiting & People Ops Consultant | COO/Co-founder/Head of Diversity of VSourced.com