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Ask HR: Is Being Fired for Not Being a 'Culture Fit' Discriminatory?

SHRM President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, is answering HR questions as part of a series for USA Today. 

Do you have an HR or work-related question you'd like him to answer? Submit it here.

A friend of mine was recently fired for not being a "culture fit." Is this a legitimate reason for letting someone go? Gary

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: Provided the decision is not motivated by illegal, discriminatory bias, employers can and do indeed fire people who aren't a culture fit. Employers, in many cases, rank workplace culture on a similar level of importance as technical competency.

As employers examine the role culture plays in workplace performance, they find that everybody isn't for every workplace culture. In most instances, workers don't work on an island. How well they engage with others affects collaboration and overall performance. If a worker is at odds with the organization's mission, it can affect morale and productivity. Employers recognize that having the right people in the right place can mean the difference between surviving and thriving.

The employment-at-will doctrine applies in all states except Montana. It allows employers the legal right to terminate employment with or without notice and with or without cause for any reasons not explicitly prohibited by law. Race, color, religion, gender, national origin, disability, age and genetic information are considered illegal discriminatory criteria.

In cases of termination or any adverse employment action, the burden of proof typically falls on employers to demonstrate a nondiscriminatory, legitimate business reason. I am not privy to the specifics of your friend's termination, but the employer should be responsible for clearly articulating their rationale.

Many workplace elements make up culture, including work performance, personality, work style and work ethic. Once a performance or behavioral fit issue arises, employers should candidly address it. Bringing awareness or making minor adjustments can often resolve culture fit problems. However, regardless of tenure or status, employers can allow time for improvement or terminate immediately, provided they follow protocol.

Similarly, employees can and do choose to resign for any reason. The employee and employer relationship can be as volatile or harmonious as any. If someone is not a fit for one situation, they may still be the ideal fit for another. Cultural alignment is critical for employers and employees in the long term.

Culture is the fundamental defining element of the workplace. If the work is what an organization does, workplace culture is how the organization does it. With this in mind, organizations should be purposeful in shaping their culture. Employers and employees will rarely be an exact match, which is why each should bring flexibility and grace to their association. However, forcing a square peg into a round hole ultimately hurts both.

Knowing yourself, how you work and your workplace preferences will help you discern if an organizational culture aligns with your personal and career aspirations.

Our new, younger staff's work emails exhibit poor grammar. They've demonstrated that they can write professionally, but many have developed poor habits in exchanges with co-workers over text, Slack and email. It is most problematic when writing clients. How can I help improve their business writing? Kiris

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: This can be a tremendous learning opportunity for you as a people manager and for your direct reports. If they are new to the world of work and young in their careers, be willing to guide and direct them as they grow.

Start by setting up a team meeting or carving out a portion of a regular meeting. Rather than flag mistakes, approach this as a chance to share company protocol, communication expectations and even some basic office etiquette. Afterward, make it a part of the ongoing feedback at work to keep everyone on the same page.

Electronic messaging systems like texting and Slack are less formal and come under less scrutiny. So, encourage them to be mindful of the channel and the audience (such as clients or external stakeholders) when writing. While young and seasoned professionals alike must get this right, remember to bring some empathy to this common struggle. How we text a "BFF" will look and feel different than an email to a client.

This conversation should be more of a dialogue than a monologue. As a people manager, you should offer guidance and feedback and invite employees to ask questions and address their concerns. If they've demonstrated that they know how to write professionally, then it may be wise to focus on why it is critical to communicate professionally. In your case, email may be a vital touchpoint with your clients or other external stakeholders.

Learning the ins and outs of office protocol, including email etiquette, is necessary, but this rarely happens overnight. Consider pairing your newer, younger staff with seasoned team members who can help them acclimate to the work environment. When it comes to higher-profile external emails, have them check each other's work. Additionally, most email systems have tools to check spelling and grammar that can help identify basic mistakes. Online tools and apps are also available to perform more extensive grammatical reviews.

Check with your HR team for insight on any professional development opportunities. There may be a few business writing courses to help your staff gain familiarity with professional tone and format. It may be helpful to show examples of professional and effective emails you have written to better set expectations.

Best of luck!


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