Beyond Skills. How to be the Right Fit Candidate.

Beyond Skills. How to be the Right Fit Candidate.

Many interview candidates feel that they had a great interview–they made a great first impression, demonstrated their ability to do the job, fully explained their strengths and past achievements, made a personal connection–and then comes the surprise phone call. “I am sorry to tell you that you have not been successful.”

“How come?” you ask. You continue to outline the strengths you showed in the interview, but it becomes clear that the person on the other end of the line has long stopped listening. “You just weren’t the right cultural fit,” they say, and the discussion is over.

Let’s take the story of James, a bright young student at Harvard Business School where he was applying for high-flying consulting and investment banking jobs.

Being a Baker Scholar (one of Harvard’s highest academic achievements), his academic ability was evident. Equally, he had great stories to tell about how he was able to show initiative, or drive, or courage, or teamwork, during the behavioral interviews. (You can read more about behavioral interviewing in our behavioral interviews article here:

But, as the interviews wore on, he received more and more rejections after only the first round of interviewing. He was understandably disappointed–after all, he doesn’t often get rejected from anything!

When he spoke to the recruiters about the reasons for his rejection, he was told he was the wrong cultural fit.

James had never been told he was the wrong cultural fit for anything!! What was wrong with him? Did he crack the wrong joke at the start of the interview? Did he wear the wrong tie or were his shoes the wrong color?

His first reaction was that it must be an excuse–there was something about him that they didn’t like, but couldn’t tell him. Something I haven’t told you yet is that James is an African American.

Was it cultural fit or illegal discrimination?

While it could have been an excuse, there might also have been certain things in James that the interviewers viewed as not fitting in with their culture.

He mentioned, for instance, that he was extremely fastidious in his working style, and would stay long hours to ensure that he always produced work of the highest quality. Admirable within some companies, perhaps, but others might see it as being detrimental to team spirit if James were not able to prioritize, or to relax once in a while if the work he was doing at the time wasn’t critical.

He also mentioned that he liked to take initiative and present the people around him with highly-polished work. But if the organization was used to getting everyone involved in the problem so that the solution was jointly developed, would James accommodate this or not?

So, although the recruiter could be more helpful to James in the feedback which is given to him, there is nothing underhand going on. In fact, the recruiter is working in James’s interests to ensure that he does not join a firm where he will not fit in and excel.

Of course, some firms are less scrupulous, and may use the “cultural fit excuse” as a covert way of illegally discriminating against candidates on the basis of race, gender, age and other factors.

Dealing with discrimination

So what do you do if you suspect that you have been the victim of this illegal discrimination?

While the definition of discrimination varies depending on where you are in the world, many countries have legislation in place that bans discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, gender, age, marital status, HIV or transgender status, disability, religion and sexual preference.

The first thing you must do is to seek legal advice–your local telephone directory will have a number of employment law specialists, or alternatively you could contact an anti-discrimination group who is also likely to maintain a register of lawyers who may be able to help you.

Each country has similar, but slightly different employment law in the area of discrimination, which is too detailed to go into here–you really do need a lawyer to advise you here. The general context, however, is that you must have evidence that it was your race/gender/age or whatever it was which stopped you getting the job, and that there is no job-related reason for you not to be able to do the job. This can be slightly tricky to assess. For instance, many firefighting departments are male-dominated. This is not because of discrimination against women, but because there is a strength requirement inherent in the job which more men are able to achieve than women. Generally it would only be discrimination if the strength requirement was actually greater than that actually needed to be a successful firefighter.

For those who are interested, James became neither an investment banker nor a consultant. The deeper he looked into those careers, the more he realized that he would not succeed. He is now a teacher just outside of Chicago where he is able to develop young minds–who knows, perhaps one of his students might become a banker!

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