Cultural Fit, Professional Newcomers, & Constructive Dismissal

In workplaces emphasizing “cultural fit” over skills, a newcomer might feel edged out or subtly ignored, and feel tempted to quit. Orange LLP provides insight into constructive dismissal, a thinly veiled form of workplace harassment. (This blog posting was originally published on the Orange LLP blog.)

By Victoria Hetherington, Orange LLP

Since the Orange team has welcomed the wonderful Vicky Wong, who specializes in labour law, our firm has expanded its focus to employment and human rights issues. This expansion is quite intuitive as, from a legal standpoint, there are many intersections between employment and immigration. While the enormous, disastrous temporary foreign worker situation in Canada is (rightfully) commanding national attention, professional newcomers entering the Canadian workforce also face challenges, and many center around minute cultural difference. A recent article in BusinessWeek suggests that employers “don’t necessarily hire the most skilled candidates,” and are instead beginning to emphasize “cultural fit.” As a result, hiring practices are beginning to feel like “first dates”: a new survey from Glassdoor reveals, for example, that some of the most-asked job interview questions include “What’s your favorite movie?;” and, even more inanely, “If you could pick one person to play you in a movie, who would it be?”

“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,” one employer reveals. Wait, what? While we understand that happy employees are less likely to quit, saving rehiring and retraining money, a growing emphasis on social dynamics opens avenues for workplace bullying through exclusionary tactics and clique-like behavior – and, since “cultural fit” is located within a very specific set of cultural references, newcomers are left vulnerable. Furthermore, an increased emphasis on “cultural fit” in job interviews might beget racial or cultural discrimination. One workplace guide outlines common cultural stereotypes: people from China are often stereotyped as “hardworking, diligent;” people from Italy are “passionate, explosive,” and so on. Keeping personal space or avoiding eye contact is read as distant and cold in some countries, but as appropriately respectful in others; shaking one’s head means something different in India than it does in Canada. Non-verbal communication and culture – or gestures, movements, tone of voice, eye contact and facial expressions vary in meaning across cultures; a working awareness of cultural difference is crucial both during job interviews and within the workplace. A multicultural workplace is one that not only recognizes but actively encourages people from a variety of backgrounds to retain their language and culture. How does ‘cultural fit,’ with its emphasis on very specific set of Western cultural references, work towards this goal? Wouldn’t it encourage all kinds of problematic homogeneity in the workplace?

In workplaces emphasizing “cultural fit” or culturally congruent sociability over skills, a newcomer might feel edged out or subtly ignored, and feel tempted to quit. Today Vicky provides her insight into constructive dismissal, a thinly veiled form of workplace harassment that, she reveals, occur all too often. For clarity, Vicky provides some examples (names have been changed):

When you feel discriminated against and/or feel forced into quitting, it’s possible you have a case for constructive dismissal. Here are her examples:

  1. Brian is a high-performing employee, but he does not get along with his manager. His manager often tells him to quit if he doesn’t like him and Brian finally does after his manager’s constant coaxing.
  2. Nick’s manager constantly yells at him and tells him that he’s stupid. He also makes jokes about him and laughs about it with other employees while Nick is present. After months of his manager’s bullying, he decides to quit.
  3. Angela is one of four computer programmers in her department. All the programmers were hired at the same time, with the same seniority. Angela’s performance record has always been great. She gets paid $10,000 less than the other programmers. After speaking to her manager about the pay equity issues in the department, the manager refuses to do anything about it and tells her, “tough luck.” Angela decides to quit after several attempts to fix the compensation inequity between her and the programmers.
  4. Max’s manager is temperamental and has no patience for employees that work under him. Max approached his manager with a question and in frustration, his manager pushes him and tells him he is incompetent. This treatment occurs every time Max approaches his manager. Max finally decides to quit.
  5. Carmen’s manager decided to start giving her the worse assignments and any projects that other employees in the department dreaded to do, in hopes that she would quit. Her manager began taking away all her meaningful tasks and assigned them to his daughter, whom he hired upon he graduation. After a few months, Carmen became visibly upset and quit.

If one of these examples resonates with your own situation, talk to a lawyer: constructive dismissal is often difficult to define, but it’s possible you have a case. And if you feel you’re being guided towards constructive dismissal, talk to HR immediately – it’s their job to maintain a healthy, positive work environment.