Sam Biddle of The Intercept recounts the story of a black woman who applied for a job at Facebook only to discover the nature of the cult-like empire Mark Zuckerberg has created. Her candidacy was rejected. Some surmise from this that Facebook’s policies are racist. That is certainly true, but the evil may be even more complex.
Biddle highlights the probable legal consequences of these incidents, a problem that will require the usual fancy footwork of Facebook’s well-paid lawyers to work out. “The woman joins three others who have recently complained to the EEOC about anti-Black racism at Facebook,” he writes. As Reuters reports, the complaints have led the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to launch what it calls a “systemic” probe into policies that “may be contributing to widespread discrimination.”
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The unhappy candidate “alleges that during one of the in-person interviews in California, she was told, ‘There’s no doubt you can do the job, but we’re really looking for a culture fit.’”
Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:
Conformity to an unstated set of values held by a certain category of people who are convinced that their own predilections and habits represent an ideal that must be protected from the profane
Biddle explains that the notion of “‘culture fit’ is common in corporate tech culture, typically defined as the quality of hiring someone you’d want to hang out with socially or grab a beer with, but often criticized as little more than a euphemistic stand-in for racial or gender-based discrimination and a way for companies to deflect accusations of hiring bias.” The critics are right about the effect. But they are wrong to think that it is only an indicator of racism.
In fact, it reveals how racism itself is part of a bigger problem. We might call it the taste for “cultural exceptionalism,” similar to the idea so forcefully insisted upon by US politicians of “American exceptionalism.” If the nation can think of itself as exceptional and therefore not bound by rules it applies to others, then, why shouldn’t a powerful, domineering company like Facebook apply the same logic?
Biddle notes one aspect of the narcissistic absurdity of Facebook’s alleged practice: “[D]etermining what the ‘culture’ in question even is or how one might ‘fit’ into it can be impossible if an applicant doesn’t closely resemble a company’s founders or current staff.” This seems to indicate that this isn’t really about culture. It’s about cult.
The lawyers who formulated the complaint have identified what they envisage as the possible solution. It would be to provide “sufficient objective guidance to managers and other employees on how to determine which applicants and employees will be a good ‘culture fit’ at Facebook.”
This appears to presage that there will be a settlement no doubt including some form of compensation to buy off the plaintiffs, while also obliging Facebook’s human resources department to formulate a series of explicit descriptive rules that interviewers will be expected to respect. Those guidelines will, of course, formally exclude consideration of the actual geographic, ethnic or racial origin of the candidate. In all likelihood, once those conditions are met, Facebook and other Silicon Valley companies will evade further scrutiny simply by banishing the term “culture fit” from their discourse, especially when explaining the reasons for rejecting the candidacy of a member of an unwanted minority.
This means that “culture fit” will enter the list of politically incorrect terms never to be used in public. Even that superficial fix will annoy the people who have been pleased to use the term with a belief that it corresponds to a deep scientific truth that also furthers rational management practices. The company will carry on with the same discriminatory practice as in the past but will have to find a new formula for describing it.
Organizational culture became a recognized field of sociological investigation thanks in large part to the monumental work of Edgar Schein. Whenever humans group together in any configuration — from a family to a nation, from a coterie of friends to a world religion — their interaction produces a set of habits, styles of communication, beliefs and expectations that become identifiable as the essential components of a specific culture. Even though we think of administrations and commercial companies as machines carrying out programmed tasks, Schein realized that even these seemingly impersonal machines cannot exist without producing a culture.
All humans possess and adapt to the multiple cultures they become associated with. We function differently whether we are with our family, at the workplace, in school or when we participate in any kind of ritualized event, from a religious service to attendance at a live sporting event. Without consciously planning it, there are things we will think, say and do differently in situations created by those groupings.
Because of their focus on work outcomes, organizational cultures remain independent from the forces that define people’s social being. Organizational culture is structured by the patterns of interaction and expectations generated by the activity of people whose employment takes meaning from the fact that they share the objective of achieving coordinated professional and commercial goals. That is why, when they recruit, firms traditionally focus on qualifications, knowledge and existing skill sets — including thinking and communication skills — rather than the random factors that structure a candidate’s social identity.
Good recruiters know that social diversity actually helps teams focus on their professional skills and develop a collective competence that remains separate from purely social interests. A company with a strong culture has no need to seek people with a certain cultural profile. It should have the strength to integrate competent people into an ever-evolving culture that results not from a model imposed by management, but organically from the authentic interaction of its members. Specific professional practices may be imposed from the top down, but a healthy organizational culture should grow productively from the bottom up.
Facebook’s recruiters appear to be more motivated by an Orwellian taste for uniformity in thought processes, tastes and styles of social interaction than by a serious quest for professional efficacy. That has not prevented the company from becoming Mark Zuckerberg’s personal empire as well as a financial and cultural powerhouse. In fact, the two phenomena appear to be linked. Zuckerberg notoriously possesses absolute control of the company at the shareholder, board and management level. Facebook is as close to an autocracy as a publicly-owned company can be. The kind of seemingly inviolable power Elon Musk has achieved through charisma alone, Zuckerberg, lacking the Tesla CEO’s charisma, achieves through strict financial and cultural control.
Facebook’s errors and abuses are well known. But the company is too rich and powerful ever to be held truly accountable for any of its crimes or mistakes, at least until such time as a political revolt overturns its monopoly. There may be reprimands, injunctions and fines, but nothing that will destabilize the public monuments major private enterprises have become.
The innovation of the criterion of “culture fit” should make Edgar Schein and indeed anyone who has studied human culture cringe. It reveals a totalitarian mindset. It demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of organizational culture and culture tout court. Scientologists, who categorize as “suppressive persons” those who fail to meet their criteria for “culture fit,” may feel differently. That’s because cults are always on the lookout for those who may not buy into their regimented way of thinking, behaving or being.
This controversy reveals a deeper problem infecting US society: its misunderstanding of the very notion of culture. For decades, political difference has been recast as a competitive game called “culture wars.” For one group, wishing another person “happy holidays” is an attack on Christmas. For another group, accidentally pronouncing certain words, even when the intention is to denounce their use, constitutes proof of racist convictions. Even wearing the wrong mittens in cold weather can be damning.
Culture is what people share without even being aware of it. Highlighting what Schein calls a culture’s “artifacts” as proof of evil intentions denies the fundamental reality of culture and constrains any form of original thinking. In the name of some imaginary idea of morality that is built into culture, that seems to be the goal of every camp: to constrain even the possibility of creative thinking. Cultural fit? No, cult mentality.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.