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.

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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.

Next station: reflection

I exited the train, and during the walk home I was still bothered by the “new discrimination” statement.

It didn’t seem to me that there was anything “new” about hiring people who think or act similar. Sure, it’s probably a shitty business move to primarily hire a candidate not because of their stellar track record or educational prowess, but because during the interview they seemed like someone you’d enjoy grabbing a beer with. But nothing about doing that felt particularly “new” and, based on my recent investigative journalism trip, this sure as hell didn't seem like a form of discrimination.

My thoughts flashed back to three hiring experiences I’d had.

(1) The local grocery store.

This was my first steady job, and I kept it for four years. But I went back to a memory I hadn’t thought about. There was a kiosk just outside of the produce department that allowed job seekers to submit their applications. Applicants were first encouraged to apply through that kiosk, and if there was an opening or interest a proper resume could be submitted.

I’d guess that 90% of the people who used the kiosk throughout the day were black. Yet, and because the passing of time has helped me cut through some of the ways my white privilege blinded me over a decade ago, when I look back I can only recall having one black co-worker.

When I applied through the kiosk, I was called back the next day, and officially hired the next week. Was the grocery store hiring for cultural fit — of the small-town, majority white, central Pennsylvania variety?

It’s likely.

(2) An online publication.

A few years ago I was in a position to make some hires to help expand our editorial coverage. I’d posted on social media that I was looking to hire, and a bunch of friends reached out. However, when it came down to it, and even though they were certainly qualified for the roles, I didn’t bring a single one on board.

The reason? When I looked back through what our growing team needed, I realized we had major gaps. We were writing about disability rights and LGBTQ issues, yet our team didn’t have people who could authentically write from those perspectives.

So, when applications came in from people who could, and their credentials were comparable to my friends who I knew I’d love to work with, it was a no-brainer. I hired not for cultural fit but for cultural contribution. I wanted people who could help develop our culture, not just reinforce the one we already had.

(3) When I joined Flow.

Let me be real here: I didn’t think I’d get the job. It was a relatively unstructured interview process, where I had three 1-to-1 interviews with different members of the marketing team. It was clear that each member had an incredible amount of experience working with tech companies. Indeed, as I’d later find out, most people in the company did.

During each interview I felt like a cultural outsider. I was coming from an educational and freelance journalism background, and didn’t have any idea what SaaS (software as a service) meant. Plus, even though I’d researched the company a ton, I couldn’t wrap my brain around what they actually did.

My first interview was a disaster because my WiFi was terrible. And add to this that, because they were willing to bring someone remote on board, it meant I was competing against hundreds of candidates from all over the world—including those who had likely worked for SaaS companies before. Despite all that, they hired me. And it wasn’t so much for cultural fit as it was because they thought I could bring a new perspective to the team. In other words, Flow hired for cultural contribution rather than fit.

Next station: research

At this point, I understood why Lauren Rivera at Northwestern referred to this as “new.” As we’ve written about here at TMT, company culture is more of a flag than anything tangible. It’s a way for a company to lure new prospects by saying Here’s what we value and here’s what our cool policies are—whether they follow those values or policies is almost another matter altogether.

Wave the flag, show you are hip, hire people who fit your culture, repeat.

No, it’s not “new” to hire people we will form an instant connection with. But it is a fairly new phenomenon that companies are increasingly promoting not their financial perks or the way they’re changing the world but their company cultures. I get it.

But the discrimination part? I still didn’t get it. This was where I had to dig into some research.

The quote from Rivera that appeared in Originals was actually part of the conclusion to a controversial piece titled, Guess Who Doesn’t Fit In at Work, that she wrote for The New York Times. Here it is:

Wanting to work with people like ourselves is not new. In the past, employers overtly restricted job opportunities based on sex, race and religion, which is now illegal. But cultural fit has become a new form of discrimination that keeps demographic and cultural diversity down, all in the name of employee enjoyment and fun.”

And herein lies the problem. Because this idea of “culture” has become so vague—it essentially means whatever the company or even the individual hiring manager wants it to mean—it can easily slip into what Katherine Reynolds Lewis over at Fortune referred to as a shield for discrimination.

Rivera’s research, and indeed much of her book Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs, is about how these vague notions of culture have in many ways come to be a new way to discriminate against race, gender, and various indicators of social status. Rivera’s research has revealed that when a company prides itself on hiring based on a vague notion of cultural fit—and consider that this study suggests “cultural fit” is the single most important indicator when making a hire—minorities are naturally at a disadvantage.

Katherine Klein, vice dean at the Wharton Social Impact Initiative, puts it this way:

It is an incredibly vague term, and it’s a vague term often based on gut instinct. The biggest problem is that while we invoke cultural fit as a reason to hire someone, it is far more common to use it to not hire someone. People can’t tell you what aspect of the culture they are worried about. It’s usually this sense that this person doesn’t seem ‘like us,’ like she or he won’t party well or play well. There are all sorts of biases that can—and do—creep in.”

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, discriminate means:

to make a difference in treatment or favor on a basis other than individual merit.”

With that definition in mind, we see that Rivera’s research does point to how hiring for cultural fit can lead to discrimination. But there’s another matter in the mix that can break modern teams everywhere:

Hiring for cultural fit can lead to the creation of a toxic workplace where passive niceness becomes the company’s backbone.

Hiring for cultural fit can rot companies from the inside out

Ray Dalio leads the team at Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund, a company renowned for growing even when the 2008 global economic crisis was sinking its competitors. One of the most quoted lines from his book Principles (PDF here) is this:

Create an environment in which… no one has the right to hold a critical opinion without speaking up about it.”

For Dalio, this “speaking up about it” is what he often credits as the cornerstone for why his company thrives during difficult times. Can a team assembled based primarily on whether they’ll get along with each other, or be fun to hang out with, create this type of environment? It’s possible, but highly unlikely.

A few days later, when I was once again back on the train, I resumed Originals, this time paying particular attention to the spots where Grant interviewed and gathered insights from Dalio. In the context of cultural fit being the new form of discrimination, this passage stood out to me:

At Bridgewater, [employees are] evaluated on whether they speak up—and they can be fired for failing to challenge the status quo.

Strong cultures exist when employees are intensely committed to a shared set of values and norms, but the effects depend on what those values and norms are. If you’re going to build a strong culture, it’s paramount to make diversity one of your core values. This is what separates Bridgewater’s strong culture from a cult: The commitment is to promoting dissent. In hiring, instead of using similarity to gauge cultural fit, Bridgewater assesses cultural contribution.”

Once again, I shut the audiobook off and let it sink in. Then my mind drifted to a recent discussion among our Flow colleagues. For months we’ve struggled on how to word a certain part of our pricing model, but it finally seemed like a consensus was reached in changing it up and moving forward.

That is, until a colleague spoke up. She said she understands the situation, and the reasons why a decision must soon be made. But she made it known that she fundamentally and ethically disagreed with the consensus that was forming. As a result of her statement, several others felt comfortable speaking up as well, and soon the ship was headed in a different direction.

The next morning, the first message posted in the team chatroom was from a member of our leadership team. He applauded her for speaking up, especially because it sparked discussions on so many other important issues. He said this kind of questioning of the default and challenging of the status quo “needs to be part of Flow’s DNA.”

This sure aligns with the culture Dalio has built into Bridgewater, Grant’s assessment on why that type of culture is important, and my own reflections on why Flow hired me to begin with.

It also reinforced that while hiring for cultural fit has quite likely become the new form of discrimination, it’s also a bad business move. In hiring to build a team that stands around you like mirrors, you’re building a team perfectly suited to shatter when it most needs to evolve.

***

-Lead Painting: A Murder of Crows by Nancy Farmer

Artist Statement:

"My art is a confection of fantasy and reality, my compositions peopled with characters drawn from my observation of the everyday and the mundane, but coloured by my love of stories and fairytales."

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