Fitting In Isn’t The Point of Work

A recent Fast Company piece offers a number of tips for those who fear they aren’t fitting in with their coworkers. It’s all fine advice about making an effort to talk with other people, being careful about solitary activities and so on. Quartz pushed out a similar list aimed at remote workers who want to make sure they’ve connected with the others in their company despite the absence of a shared physical space and another one about how to make friends at your first job.

All of these tend to start out from the premise that some sort of social element is a necessary aspect of the workplace.

You see that reflected in how often people talk about someone being a “good cultural fit” in a company. It’s meant to convey how someone shares a sense of humor, mission or other emotional and personality-based trait with the founders and others within the organization. In my own experience I’ve seen that come up time and again, including as a reason why I wasn’t being considered for a position I was applying for.

The problem with this being a criteria for employment – either new or continued – is that it’s not even a “soft” skill, it’s a wholly subjective measure that has two clear downsides:

First, it creates homogeneity, which in the workplace can lead to stagnation of thought, an inability to consider outside perspectives and – even worse – environments where harassment and disrespect are pervasive because that’s the “culture” that outsiders must fit into if they want to keep their jobs.

Second, It gives the individual who’s either been fired or simply not hired nowhere to go, nothing to actively work on. The only hope they have is to adopt a persona that conforms to their current or aspirational situation regardless of the consequences or to keep looking around for an opportunity where this isn’t an issue. But not one lists that kind of thing on their job listing since it’s hard to describe entirely subjective.

Instead of looking for someone who fits into the culture, companies should be looking for someone who adds to or varies the culture. If the whole office loves “The Simpsons,” find a “Kim Possible” fan. If everyone is into Red Dead Redemption, find someone who maxes out at LEGO Star Wars.

It’s bigger than pop culture, of course. Looking to add to, enhance or diversify a corporate culture leads to an enhanced and diversified workforce as well since it allows for different kinds of individuals to be given a chance at the table.

Then, allow them to thrive and judge them based solely on their work performance, not on how popular they are. Someone may be doing their job better than anyone else, but because he/she has a family at home they’d like to get back to they don’t go out for drinks every night or join the company bowling league. That doesn’t mean they should be fired.

If you get along with your coworkers, great. But work being an extension of your social life is a relatively recent development, fostered in large part by companies who want to make blur the professional/personal lines as a way to essentially guilt people into doing more work. I don’t have to like everyone I work with, we all just have to do our jobs and not actively be at each other’s throats. That’s the minimum requirement and it’s all that should be expected.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.