Many Companies Placing Emphasis On Cultural Fit Over Qualifications When Hiring New Employees

by McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC
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This post was contributed by Tony D. Dick, Esq., an Associate in McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC's Labor and Employment Practice Group in Columbus, Ohio.

A client shared an interesting article that appeared recently in BusinessWeek which highlights a growing emphasis among H.R. professionals and job interviewers in finding job candidates that are a good “cultural fit” for an organization, even when that means a less qualified candidate is ultimately selected for a particular job.  The article focuses on a comprehensive study conducted by Northwestern University professor, Lauren Rivera, who found that many employers are making hiring decisions “in a manner more closely resembling the choice of friends or romantic partners.”  According to the study, while qualifications and accolades will usually help a candidate get their foot in the door, more and more people are being asked questions in interviews about their hobbies, pop culture interests, and world views in an effort to determine whether a prospective employee will be compatible with current employees.

The job review website, Glassdoor.com, found that among the 285,000 interview questions it collected from hiring managers in the last year, questions concerning an interviewee’s favorite movie, favorite website, most recent leisure read and most uncomfortable experience all ranked among 2012’s most common interview inquiries.  The article also provides anecdotal examples of job candidates being asked in interviews about where they like to vacation, what cities they would like to visit in the future and even whether they prefer Star Wars or Star Trek.

There are a number of reasons why employers are focusing more and more on cultural fit as a key criterion in hiring.  For one, employers are increasingly recognizing the substantial costs associated with training a new employee, which can easily cost tens of thousands of dollars depending on the job and industry.  In order to make such an investment, employers want some level of assurance that the employee will mesh well with others within the work environment.  The article also suggests that companies are placing a newfound emphasis on cultural fit in the workplace as a means to attract and retain Millenials who are more prone to moving from job to job and demand a company culture that is less hierarchical and more flexible.

There are downsides to placing a special focus on these types of questions in interviews, however.  For example, it is quite possible that an interviewer will miss an opportunity to select the best candidate for a position simply because he or she did not like the candidate’s answer to an inane question about who their favorite superhero is and why.  Further, as the article points out, when an employer seeks to hire employees because it believes they will be pals with other workers, it has the tendency of creating a rather homogeneous workforce.  This can hinder diversity of thought and lead to counterproductive groupthink.

Beyond the practical drawbacks, as a labor and employment attorney, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that the line between choosing candidates based on cultural fit and discrimination is, at times, a very thin one.  As Eric Peterson, manager of diversity and inclusion at the Society for Human Resources and Management points out in the article, “A lot of times, cultural fit is used as an excuse. Maybe a hiring manager can’t picture himself having a beer with someone who has an accent.  Sometimes, diversity candidates are shown the door for no other reason than they made the interviewer a little less at ease.” 

When an employer utilizes an amorphous concept like cultural fit as a factor in the hiring process, it opens the door to an argument that discriminatory animus tainted the decision, especially when the person passed over for the job is equally or more qualified for the position.  Still, there are very real upsides to trying to ensure the prospective employee will be an ideal fit within the organization’s culture.  The article, which can be accessed here, is good food for thought and definitely worth the read.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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