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Diversity Training in the Workplace: Helping Managers Understand ’Cultural Fit’

In July 2017, a 30-something manager wrote to the Ask a Manager blog with an issue. One of the manager’s team members recently had quit; during her exit interview, she revealed some interesting tidbits about why. As a result, HR confronted the manager about “cultural problems” in the department. The manager saw nothing wrong with the culture, saying the former employee was just a “bad fit” for the young team.

What made her a bad fit? According to the manager, the employee:

  • was older than most of the people on the team
  • declined to go on weekly lunch-hour beer runs with the rest of the staff
  • did not spend as much time perusing or engaging with social media as other team members
  • couldn’t spend much time mingling with the team outside of work, because she was married with a child
  • was “very show-off-like” for completing work and forming meaningful business relationships with clients
  • made other team members look bad by “always going above and beyond for no reason”

So, the manager asked, is HR right? Or was the employee just ill-equipped to work with young professionals?

‘Cultural fit’ confusion is real ­­– and harmful

Alison Green, the blog’s creator and moderator, weighed in and supported HR’s perspective. But as sensational as the story is, what’s most surprising is how profoundly the manager misunderstood what “cultural fit” really means. Even after the manager – and her entire team – were terminated, she blamed it on the employee, who – in the manager’s mind – never should have been part of the team in the first place.

While hopefully, this is an extreme example of a front-line manager taking the idea of “cultural fit” too literally, it does illustrate that confusion exists. It also shows when that confusion is left unchecked, your efforts to build a diverse, inclusive and productive workforce suffer. Because not only can cultural-fit confusion cause good employees to leave, it can prevent them from working for you in the first place.

For many companies, front-line managers and even employees greatly influence hiring decisions. If they think finding a “cultural fit” means choosing candidates who look or act like the existing team members, or share similar backgrounds and interests, they’re unknowingly rejecting good candidates. They’re also potentially opening your company to discrimination risk. That’s why it’s important defining “cultural fit” as part of any diversity hiring training you provide to your managers.

Training can help

Luckily, for the manager in the story above, all was not lost.

Months after writing to the blog, the manager provided an update. She realized that management was not the best choice for her personality, joined a new company and thanked the blog’s commenters for their feedback.

The situation left the manager humbled and wiser. But it begs the question: If she had received some training or clarification on what “cultural fit” really means, would circumstances have been different?

It’s hard to say. But when building a diverse and inclusive company culture is your goal, it’s important everyone with a hand in accomplishing that understands what they should – and shouldn’t – do to make it happen.

To equip your front-line managers with tools to help them fairly evaluate candidates, follow the letter of the law and support your efforts to build a diverse and inclusive workforce, download our free toolkit.

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Disclaimer: This blog includes general information about legal issues and developments in the law. Such materials are for informational purposes only and may not reflect the most current legal developments. These informational materials are not intended, and must not be taken, as legal advice on any particular set of facts or circumstances. You need to contact a lawyer licensed in your jurisdiction for advice on specific legal problems.