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Cultural fit: A subliminal form of discrimination?

Diversity is good for business, so it's not OK to use 'you don't fit in' as an excuse to reject minority candidates.

by Melanie Eusebe
Last Updated: 11 May 2016

‘In terms of the core performance measures, you have achieved above and beyond expectations. However, a bit more work needs to be done in the area of cultural fit. Perhaps you should look at [insert perfect employee’s name here], as an example, and note how they navigate the organisation.’

This is what Susan was told at her annual performance review - the rationale for her average performance rating and why she would not be put forward for promotion. Although she came out on top for the core measures around sales and delivery in her role, in terms of ‘cultural fit’ and her interpersonal and leadership skills, it would seem that she had a lot to learn.  When she asked for tangible feedback - i.e. what she was doing wrong and examples of what good looked like - she was given the names of other employees, so she could model herself after them.

In another organisation across town, at a meeting of hiring managers, the discussion centered around Byron, a recent candidate interviewed for a senior manager role. He seemed to have the experience and capability to perform well. However, although it was not said explicitly, in terms of his university, dress sense, and extracurricular activities, he was ‘different’ from the existing employees. He would not be a good ‘fit’ culturally. They decided not to interview him again.

Unfortunately, Susan and Byron (not their real names) are not alone in their experiences.

In a recent public Business in the Community survey of more than 18,000 people, 57% of black and 49% of Asian employees in big companies said their career progression had failed to live up to their expectations, versus 29% of white employees. There are 62 all-white FTSE 100 boards. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of black British people in top management positions fell by 42%, according to another BITC report.

And this is not because they lack ambition - 84% of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) respondents to the open BITC survey said it was important to them to progress in their career, compared to 64% of white ones.

But despite this, I hear from far too many BAME middle managers who have gone through an experience like the ones described above. They deliver against the key performance metrics. But when it comes to the more subjective behavioural aspects of work - which come under the guise of ‘leadership’, ‘team work’, ‘relationship management’, ‘influencing’, ‘alignment to the brand’ and ‘cultural fit’ - they struggle to meet the mark. And they get little direction, in terms of pragmatic solutions, to improve their performance in these areas.

Of course, this doesn’t just apply to BAME employees. If an organisation struggles in any areas of diversity, but particularly in regards to the retention and promotion of middle managers, then I would encourage them to take a long, hard look at their performance metrics. Nebulous qualities like ‘fit’ and ‘leadership’ are hard to accurately measure. But hiring and people managers have the responsibility to ensure that all performance metrics are defined, and at the very least ‘SMART’, in order to ensure a diverse workforce.

One solution could be to remove all notions of cultural fit from assessments. But we all know that being a great technician does not ensure success. How you conduct yourself and manage others is often essential to performance.

So another way forward would be to make cultural fit more transparent, in order to give both the manager and the employee more to work with when it comes to assessments.

But this is where we enter the belly of the beast. In order to define what good looks like in any area, we often turn to the role models leading the organisation as an example of a successful journey to the top. For most, the senior management share a few key characteristics: they are white, heterosexual men, many of whom are called John. This creates preconceived notions of what success looks like (literally) and, at its worst, unconscious bias.

If cultural fit as a concept is not owned, explored and defined and, worse still, if we choose to ignore its importance, then we risk basing our assessments on non-business factors. Gender, ethnicity, socio-economic class, where we live, the clothes we wear, the places we eat, our weekend activities, how many children we have and so on - all will be hidden under the guise of  ‘the right fit’.

In order to operate a true meritocracy, where diversity is celebrated, an organisation needs to articulate a clear and complete set of all their criteria for success - not just the ones that are easy to swallow.

Melanie Eusebe is the founder and director of business strategy firm The Fresh Ideas Company and a professor at Hult Business School. She co-founded and chairs the Black British Business Awards.

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