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Ask HR: How Can Applicants Know If They Fit a Company's Culture?

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. 

I am currently looking for a job after 11 years with the same company. I hear a lot of talk on "cultural fit." What is a good way to evaluate employers based on how I would fit in? –Giselle

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: I am glad you bring this up, as you are among many people who struggle with the concept of cultural "fit" or alignment. When looking for culture fit you want to see how your work style and values align with a prospective employer.

You could conceivably have the requisite skills and experience for a position but not align with the organizational culture. In these situations, work can be especially taxing and make for a poor experience and eventually lead to poor performance. There may not be good or bad cultures per se—excluding illegal, immoral or unethical cultures—but there certainly can be good and bad cultures for you and your unique work style.

From an employer's perspective, workplace culture defines who they are and how they get work done. Ideally, once workplace culture is clearly defined the organization will recruit based on those traits. Similarly, you can evaluate employers to ensure you will be working in an environment aligned with your personal preferences. It may be helpful to think through questions like the ones below and write down your answers to help clarify your opinions.

  • How do you like to make decisions? Are you cautious? Or are you a risk-taker?
  • How do you deal with ambiguity? How open are you to accepting unclear or new situations in the workplace?
  • How do you respond to varying degrees of structure within a company? 
  • How do you respond to different managerial styles?
  • Do you prefer to work alone or in teams?
  • How adaptable are you? 

Going further, you'll want to clarify your own values. What ideals or fundamental beliefs do you live by, both personally and professionally? What motivates you? What qualities do you admire in your role models?

Even before an interview, you can begin to compile insights into an employer's unique culture. Review their website to gain an understanding of who they are; their mission, vision and values; and their history. If possible, speak with current or former employees about their experiences and look at employee reviews online to get a better sense of the company's culture. During interviews try to get a clear understanding of the culture. Even within a smaller group or department, there may be a subculture to consider. Your interview is an opportunity to identify what it means to work for the prospective company, in a specific department, and for your potential people manager.

Alternatively, do not underestimate the value of being a "cultural misfit." There is value in thinking or working differently than your peers! Fresh perspectives foster tremendous innovation in the workplace.

By knowing both who you are and who a prospective employer is, you will be able to make an informed decision that works well for both parties. I hope your next position suits you well!

In a recent interview as a candidate for camp counselor, I was asked about my sexual orientation. Is it legal for a prospective employer to ask about sexual orientation? –Neal

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: Surprisingly, asking a candidate about their sexual orientation is not against the law, although how an employer uses this information could be. However, asking such a question could also place an employer in an extremely precarious position.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating against applicants and employees based on certain protected characteristics, like race, color, religion, national origin and sex. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency enforcing this law, interprets the protected status of "sex" to include an individual's sexual orientation as well as gender identity. Under this distinction, hiring someone based on their sexual orientation is discriminatory and illegal.

Federal law is not the only protection individuals have against sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace. Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia also have laws in place explicitly prohibiting employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

In extremely rare cases, an employer may be permitted to deny employment based on an applicant's protected status. For such discrimination to be accepted under the law, the protected status would need to be a bona fide requirement for the job. For example, a church could require candidates for a priesthood to belong to the Catholic faith.

While asking about a candidate's sexual orientation is not unlawful, it certainly doesn't mean an employer should do it. An employer would be hard-pressed to tie a legitimate job qualification to a person's sexual orientation. If an employer were to inquire about a candidate's sexual orientation and later deny them employment—even if based on legitimate reasons—the applicant might conclude that the decision is based on their sexual orientation. Should the candidate then file a claim of discrimination, the employer would bear the burden of demonstrating that their decision was nondiscriminatory.

I'll leave you with this: In any interview, you can always ask for reasoning behind a line of questioning to find out how it relates to the job function. If you feel a question is unwarranted or irrelevant, you can always decline to answer it. I would also advise you to provide some feedback to the HR professional facilitating your recruitment process, as they aren't always privy to the details of every interview. Good luck in your job search. 


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