"Culture Fit": The Trendy New Form Of Discrimination

Experience and education are no longer the most important determining factors in hiring decisions. "Culture fit" is the new, cooler dog on the block. And we're just now seeing its dark side.

I've recently returned from Myanmar, where my job was to write about the systemic discrimination faced by some of the country's ethnic and religious minorities. Over the past few weeks, I've been diving deep into the issue in an attempt to bring clarity to the sometimes blurry lines between prejudice, discrimination, and oppression.

I met people who weren't allowed to sign an apartment lease because it read "No Muslims allowed" on the contract, and I spent time with others who were taken out of college classrooms and forced by gunpoint to live in what researchers at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum have referred to as concentration camps.

So on a train ride last week, when I was listening to the audiobook version of Originals by Adam Grant, I was ultra-sensitive when the book's narrator read the following passage:

"'Cultural fit has become a new form of discrimination,' Northwestern University sociologist Lauren Rivera finds."

Whoa. Say what? I paused it, bookmarked the section, and pushed play. The next line:

"Too often, it is a 'catchall used to justify hiring people who are similar to decision makers and rejecting people who are not.'"

I paused it again, this time letting the words sink in for the remainder of the train ride.

This is when thoughts swirled. Was this some kind of elitist statement, the hijacking of a serious word and concept like discrimination for the sake of applying it to a relatively inconsequential matter? I thought about the Civil Rights Act of 1964, how it sought to provide equal opportunity for employment by banning job discrimination in hiring, promoting, and firing on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.

Then I thought about how such discrimination happens anyways, how in 2014 women were paid 79% what men were paid ( PDF here on that), and how companies such as Chik-Fil-A, Southwest Airlines, Nike (not to mention nearly every tech company) frequently tout their cool company culture as the primary reason why employees should join their team.