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‘Cultural fit’ might be code for age discrimination

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Each organization has its own culture, and some even strive to differentiate themselves based on that unique atmosphere. But some words of caution are in order: If you use “cultural fit” to limit applicants or to drive out those who don’t conform, prepare for trouble. A disgruntled employee just may sue, alleging that the company’s “culture talk” is really just a fancy way to say discrimination.

Recent case: Brian Reid, who was over age 50, went to work for ultra-hip Google. Reid was a former Stanford professor with a doctorate in computer science.

Two years after he started, he was terminated because he was not a good “cultural fit.” Reid sued, alleging age discrimination in violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) and other laws.

In court, Reid explained a little of that Google culture. It included comments that Reid’s opinions and ideas were “obsolete” and “too old to matter.” He was called “slow,” “fuzzy,” “sluggish” and lacking “a sense of urgency.” He was “an old fuddy-duddy.”

Always the scientist, Reid presented statistical evidence of age discrimination, including proof that the older an employee was, the lower his performance rating and bonus. That, coupled with the age-related comments, was enough to earn Reid a trial. A jury now will decide whether “cultural fit” was a code for age discrimination at Google. (Reid v. Google, Inc., No. H029602, Court of Appeal of California, Sixth Appellate Division, 2007)

Final note: Train all managers and supervisors that age-related comments are always off limits in the workplace. Any criticism of employees should focus on actual work, not subjective factors. If someone is “slow,” the proper measure is work output, not personality. 

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