Is “Cultural Fit” Code For “Be Like Me”?

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Jan 30, 2017

Last Spring, Sally Fields starred in a movie called Hello, My Name is Doris as a wacky 60-something clerk working in a hip company run by millennials. Leaving aside the film’s focus on Doris’s unrequited crush on a younger colleague, the film provided ample evidence of the disconnect when baby boomers work among younger (read: more hip) employees.

Sight gags abound: Doris unable to keep her balance on the mandated switch from office chair to stability ball; Doris learning how to use the Internet (gasp!) from her friend’s granddaughter. You get the picture. As much as it made this baby boomer cringe, this film, like DeNiro’s The Internwent over the top in portraying how cool the young folks discovered their older colleagues can be. Talk about condescending.

I reference movies frequently, but that’s because they reflect our cultural zeitgeist, whether or not we want to admit it. And what I suspect most HR people and managers throughout the organizations don’t want to admit is a level of condescension towards employees who are outside the mean with respect to age, political leaning or educational levels.

Age discrimination is real

My work as a job search coach and resume writer provides no end of anecdotal evidence that a lack of workplace diversity exists in America. Sure, we strive (rightly so) for diversity within ethnicity, race, religion and sexual orientation, but otherwise? Not from where I’m sitting.

Tales from the trenches include Tom, whose career in global supply chain management in the medical devices industry has won his employers significant revenue growth and cost savings. Self-employed for the past 3 years, he’s now looking for a job, but is worried about being middle-age and not having completed a college degree. Quantifiable achievements will likely make the lack of degree less relevant, but his age is proving to be a factor.

Consider Annette, who is staunchly conservative in her political views, which might make her a cultural fit for many red state companies, but she lives in largely liberal Boston. While it is generally wise to refrain from political debate in the workplace because you can be disciplined or fired, employers tend to avoid hiring people whose world view clashes with that of the majority.

And then there are people whose priorities are different. I nearly got rejected for a job where I wound up working happily for 11 years because I was a 47-year old suburban mom and the people who I interviewed with were mostly in their late 20s. At 47, it wasn’t age that thwarted my appeal; it was that I was going to be walking out the door in time to have family dinner, not hitting the local pub to shoot pool and down a few beers.

Does everyone have to fit?

What’s the danger here? It’s a question of whether everyone in a company needs to be a “cultural fit.” In a Harvard Business Review article, Katie Bouton argues that, “Culture fit is the glue that holds an organization together,” making it a key trait to identify when hiring. She cites a SHRM study noting that the turnover caused by poor fit can cost an organization between 50 and 60 percent of the person’s annual salary.

Data doesn’t lie, but perhaps we need to rethink what we mean when we talk about cultural fit. Maybe it’s less about “You’re just like the rest of us!” and rather, “You share our corporate values!” Bouton recognizes this, and advocates for companies to define their organizational values, whether they be collaboration, entrepreneurial mindsets or fierce independence.

But the danger, I believe, is in seeking common corporate values based on other, more personally held values. An organization’s values should be unifying, not dividing. In other words, millennials and baby boomers may think differently about many issues, but they can agree that providing stellar customer service is a mutual goal. Conservatives and liberals can unite over whether or not they are comfortable working for a tobacco company. Joining the crowd after hours to socialize isn’t an issue if parents and non-parents share a passion for writing the most bug-proof code.

If your organization has these values, they can transcend those closely held personal convictions, and create a culture where everyone belongs.

This article originally appeared on ReWork, a publication exploring the future of work.