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Cultural fit v. Diversity

Posted by Robin Abrahams  January 23, 2013 02:15 PM

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A friend drew my attention to this intriguing piece in Business Week on one of the paradoxes of hiring: Companies want diversity in their labor force, for all kinds of reasons, but they also want a labor force that gets along and is simpatico, which is often easier to achieve with a group that is fairly similar to begin with.

If any of you have applied for jobs recently, was there a lot of talk about "cultural fit," making sure your personality and work style would fit in with the organization? From the article:

The phrase "cultural fit" may summon up obnoxious images of old boys clubs and social connections, but it's a powerful buzzword among human resources professionals. A cooperative, creative atmosphere can make workdays more tolerable and head off problems before they begin."I used to work for an e-commerce company that spent a lot of time refining its culture," says Mercedes Douglas, now head of recruiting at Kikin, an Internet search startup. "I hired someone as a manager, and it created a lot of tension because he didn't fit in. People tried to alienate him because they weren't interested in him as a friend," she says. And it also goes the other way. "I once hired a woman who really didn't have the right background or experience for the job, but who I hit it off with during the interview," says Rebecca Grossman-Cohen, a marketing executive at News Corp. "And because we got along so well, I was able to train her easily, and she ended up doing great things for us."

There's a tension to be maintained. Clearly, there is such a thing as a person-organization match. I worked for one company in which you had to be willing to fight for your ideas, and at times your food. We hired a woman whose skills and qualifications were perfect, but our office culture just killed her delicate flowerlike spirit. It was like putting Emily Dickinson on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. We were trying to be "objective" in our hiring process, and wasted everyone's time, money, and self-esteem in the process.

On the other hand, you need different personality types in a work environment. Hiring on the basis of "we like them, they're like us" would be bad business practice even if many versions of it weren't illegal.

I love this paragraph about diversity narratives in American culture:

Yet this idea of tightly knit cultural affinity seems to run counter to the U.S.'s melting-pot ethos, as well as our glorification of diverse cinematic superteams--from The Magnificent Seven to Ocean's Eleven, and onto Star Trek, Star Wars, The Matrix, and The Avengers. "In all of these stories," says Sean Howe, author of the history Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, "it's not just the accumulation of complementary abilities that makes the group succeed, it's the ways in which each individual is challenged and transformed by the very environment of diversity. Which, come to think of it, is really what society is all about."

What is your favorite diverse team in popular culture? Mine would undoubtedly be the 4077 M*A*S*H. Could anyone love and hate and cooperate and compete like that gang? "M*A*S*H" ruled the airwaves during my pre-teen and adolescent years, just when you really start to learn in a serious way about individual differences and effective teamwork.


What team of rivals would you like to be a part of?

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About Miss Conduct
Welcome to Miss Conduct’s blog, a place where the popular Boston Globe Magazine columnist Robin Abrahams and her readers share etiquette tips, unravel social conundrums, and gossip about social behavior in pop culture and the news. Have a question of your own? Ask Robin using this form or by emailing her at

Who is Miss Conduct?

Robin Abrahamswrites the weekly "Miss Conduct" column for The Boston Globe Magazine and is the author of Miss Conduct's Mind over Manners. Robin has a PhD in psychology from Boston University and also works as a research associate at Harvard Business School. Her column is informed by her experience as a theater publicist, organizational-change communications manager, editor, stand-up comedian, and professor of psychology and English. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes, and their socially challenged but charismatic dog, Milo.

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