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Is ‘cultural fit’ code for too old?

If you’ve ever recruited a new staff member, one of the things you probably looked for was ‘cultural fit’.  After all, it makes sense to find someone who is liked by the team and comfortable in the work environment. But the concept of cultural fit has become increasingly controversial on the grounds that it can undermine workplace diversity and inclusion. Older workers are at risk of failing the cultural fit test, particularly in today’s fast-paced digital workplaces.

Whether intentional or not, cultural fit can mask discrimination of all types, including ageism. And whilst this can be difficult to identify because many candidates don’t even make it to interview, the curtain is slowly lifting on this insidious form of discrimination. Google has recently paid a US$11M settlement for systematically discriminating on the basis of age in hiring. The lawsuit, representing 227 plaintiffs, alleged ‘cultural fit’ was used by Google as a reason for hiring younger workers.

The problem with cultural fit is that it can be a vague notion, often simply interpreted as ‘people like us’. By playing into unconscious bias and stereotypes, cultural fit can lead to the recruitment of similar types of people, resulting in a homogenous workplace culture where anyone ‘different’ doesn’t belong.

This has led some companies, like Australian IT giant Atlassian, to switch from a focus on ‘cultural fit’ to emphasising values alignment. This is based on the idea that people can hold similar values even though they may have vastly different personalities and backgrounds. This approach is consistent with research that shows values alignment leads to a ‘deeper’ fit than demographic similarities.

Atlassian is at the forefront of thinking when it comes to workplace belonging, but cultural fit is not going away in a hurry. Recruiters and researchers alike claim that a simultaneous pursuit of culture fit and diversity is possible if it is done properly.  Doing it properly means the company clearly defines the values that underpin its desired workplace culture.  It also means avoiding intuition and ‘gut feelings’ as a basis for assessing candidates. This is because recruiters are prone to mistaking alignment between themselves and the candidate for alignment between the candidate and the organisation. To combat this potential bias, Atlassian has developed interview questions that help identify the behaviours that align with their company values and have trained staff from a wide range of demographics to be ‘values interviewers’.

So, what does all this mean for mature age workers?

The upshot is that values are more important than ever. Whilst recent scrutiny highlights the need for employers to be transparent about their values, it’s also important for candidates to be ready to articulate their own values and how they align with the employer to nail the cultural fit test. The good news is that older workers have had plenty of time to consider their own values and what type of company they want to work for!

What do you think? Make a comment below

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1 Comment

  1. Andrew Inglis

    I agree with the article and at 65 years young have many experiences of being shortlisted for positions that align to my values and felt the contribution I could make through experience knowledge and wisdom would be valuable to the organisation. A frequent response that I believe is code for being overlooked due to age is that in reviewing the position we have decided to “put it on hold” until the new year or “review what we are looking for in candidates”
    I have found very few organisations to embrace the idea of a mentorship role, shared position with someone with less experience to transfer learning.
    Interestingly I applied for a 6 month Australian Volunteers International position and was successful in being appointed overseas because of my experience, values and ability to work across cultures. It is frustrating to be viewed differently being older by Australian employers.

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