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Can the concept of ‘fit’ facilitate discrimination in the hiring process?

Can the concept of ‘fit’ facilitate discrimination in the hiring process?

As a career coach I am troubled when minority job seekers I work with mention that concerns about ‘fit’ are being brought up in job interviews. I am especially concerned when candidates who have strong qualification, work history, and interview skills land interview after interview and seem to be losing out based on ‘fit.’ The phrase itself sounds innocuous, but so do many of the other words that have developed ugly meanings as the language of American racism continues to evolve.    

My Caucasian students have never mentioned being asked about ‘fit’ in an interview, and I believe that we need to be wary about how fluidly the coded language around issues of race can shift. Theses shifts often catch good people unaware. I am concerned that well intentioned people in different organizations may be buying into the concept of ‘fit’ without realizing that they may also be buying into discriminatory hiring practices. It would take a very low level of latent racial anxiety to negatively impact an interviewer’s perception of a candidate’s ‘fit’. If a hiring decision is made based on this perception, a well-intentioned person can unwittingly commit a very serious act of discrimination.

In a more salacious situation it would take only one racially insensitive search committee member to subtly shift a discussion away from a candidate’s qualifications by beginning a discussion of ‘fit.’ When the conversation shifts, how much does that color the view of the candidate’s ability to succeed in the job? How easy would it be for race to silently enter the conversation? Would the committee members even realize that racial preferences had been introduced into the hiring process?  

The idea driving ‘Fit,’ in the human resource world, is that new hirers should match the company’s culture. In an organization with a predominantly Caucasian workforce, how much harder will it be for minorities to ‘fit’? And if workplace environments continue to be largely defined in terms of white cultural norms, then what chance will minorities ever have to ‘fit’?

I encourage recruiters and hiring managers, who may be concerned about how ‘fit’ is being used in the hiring process, to initiate conversations about defining their organizations culture. If workplace culture is left a nebulous thing it leaves ‘fit’ to be evaluated largely on personal biases. Most successful organizations have mottos and missions statements that drive business decisions. A similar statement of workplace culture and values might be a useful tool for creating a standard for evaluating fit. Such a statement should be drafted with an eye for diversity and inclusion, and ideally the committee charged with drafting the statement should be diverse. In a homogenous work environment it may be helpful to reach out to local community groups lead by underrepresented minorities. Such active community members will likely be very happy to assist a company seeking to improve its level of inclusiveness and diversity awareness.

A Culture and Values statement could be used as a training tool for individuals involved in the hiring process. This would provide a standard and a clear criterion for evaluating ‘fit’ in a way that truly reflects the aims of the organizations and validates diverse cultural traditions.

I also encourage job seekers to prepare to address these types of ambiguous and sometimes culturally loaded interview questions. Job seekers should know that it is fair to ask for clarification of ambiguous questions. When asked how they would ‘fit’ in the organization, a job seeker should be free mention the cultural underpinnings of ‘fit’ to ask how the organization defines ‘fit’ and/or its workplace culture. If the interviewers can articulate the workplace culture, the interviewee should have no problem explaining how they would fit. If the interviewers cannot explain the workplace culture, this is a serious red flag and raises questions about whether the interview question is an ethical one.

I am not arguing that people who value ‘fit’ are necessarily being discriminatory, but I am asking them to reflect on the underlying factors that they, or their colleagues, may be allowing to influence their evaluation of ‘fit.’ I am also asking individuals in the hiring process to consider ways to ensure that their workplaces strive to openness and inclusivity. As always with issues of diversity dialogue across lines of race, ethnicity, gender, economic standing, and work type will be the most effective tool ensuring that the hiring process is open and fair.

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