Fitting In At Work…NOT

I used to have huge issues with how some employers focus on “fit” or “cultural fit” in the hiring process. And last year, I learned the hard way that how you “fit” plays a role in how you’re treated at work, not only by fellow co-workers but also by managers. Work environments seem to have shifted from focusing on how well someone can do his/her job to how likable they are. While I still have a problem with this, there is also more acceptance that this is how it is. That doesn’t mean I play that game, because I don’t really know how to play that game. One of the reasons why I attended law school and then ended up not practicing law is because I realized I’d have to spend my entire legal career pretending to be someone I’m not just to 1) get a job in the first place, 2) be treated fairly at my job and 3) keep my job. I don’t really know how to do that and don’t want to.

Unfortunately, I’m the type of person who has a personality that makes it hard to fit in culturally at most modern workplaces. I probably would have been fine 20+ years ago. I am the type of employee who comes to work early, works hard, tries my best to be the best, doesn’t like down time (detest it, actually), will accept extra work and will do very little complaining to higher-ups. I don’t spend time talking or dilly-dallying, and I won’t treat or talk to supervisors and managers as if we’re on the same level or try to be friends with them (except one time when it was invited). At work, I am focused on two things–doing my job and doing it well. I am very serious and very no-nonsense. Because of this, my ideal work environment is a very formal work environment.

I am finding that formal work environments are disappearing, though, especially in careers that aren’t super professional. I have worked one post-graduate job where my personality type was valued, and that place was run by non-Americans. I think Americans now believe that having less formal work environments is more employee-friendly, and that’s probably true for most Americans. But I also think it places an undue amount of importance on cultural fit, sometimes to the point of sacrificing having employees who are either really good or really want to be good vs having ones that just…well, fit in.

That’s one issue. There’s another one, two or five, really, though. Let me explain.

My last job and my new job are very nearly night-and-day different from each other, culturally. My last job’s work environment almost entirely consisted of black people. There was good and bad in this, to me, as someone who is black. Think of Detroit, Michigan. Think of the negative stereotypes people have about Detroit and people from Detroit. Okay, where I live is very much like those stereotypes and consists of a lot of people who fit those stereotypes. These are the people with whom I worked. I’m black, but if I had to pick which “type” of black person I more so resembled in personality/behavior–the Detroit stereotype or the Obamas–I’d unhappily have to go with the Obamas (because I think the Obamas are out-of-touch dorks). So, no, I didn’t fit in at work. It wasn’t just personality, but also education and socioeconomic class.

I also couldn’t help but notice that, though almost everyone was black at work and the city my job was in is majority black, almost everyone who had an important position at this place was white and male. I encountered a few people who, upon my telling them that the people who run that place have no idea what they’re doing, automatically assumed these were black people (because, you know, only black people have no idea what they’re doing when they run businesses…sarcasm, for those of you who are slow). No, dears–this business was being run into the ground by white men.

So, I escape to this new job. Everyone is white. Everyone. Aside from the training provided, the business is run very well. People know their jobs in and out, and they do their jobs well. They are not rude. Most of them are very friendly. I was kind of surprised they hired me due to the more shallow side of “cultural fit,” i.e. race and sex. But now that I work there, I am really surprised they hired me and almost actually think maybe they shouldn’t have. At the very least, I wonder what they were thinking about when they discussed my candidacy.

In the previous two posts, I have mentioned a little bit about socializing at my job. One key thing I mentioned is about how my boss appears to me to have some concern over the fact that I am not speaking to others and they are not speaking to me when she is in our area. The guys and I do talk to each other several times throughout the day. We do not communicate as much as they talk to each other. As I wrote, I am fine with this. I also indicated in my last post that I am especially quiet on Fridays, when my boss always wanders into our area several times, because I really don’t want to be at work and can’t wait for the weekend.

But let me be blatantly honest about the main reason why my co-workers and I don’t communicate as much as they do with each other.

I am a black female. They are, for the most part, a bunch of white guys. What are we going to talk about?

I realize that a lot of people out there like to act as if they believe people are people and we’re all the same. But I have predominantly grown up in white environments and…no, no, not really the same. Sorry. There are, for lack of a more accurate word, cultural differences between whites and blacks…especially depending on the race/sex mix of the people involved. I think the guys are great as human beings, and I am grateful that they have been so helpful to me so far and friendly. But–and they have said this about themselves directly to methey…are…DORKS. And I do not know how to say this without being offensive, but…most white guys I’ve encountered just are. Ultimately, it’s a matter of different strokes, different folks. Most white guys just like things most black women don’t, most white guys just like to discuss things most black women don’t, and most white guys think things are funny that most black women don’t. There will definitely be some things in common–I can speak with some of the guys there about football until the cows come home–but there will likely be even more things that aren’t in common between most white men and most black women. Sorry if you don’t agree or understand how this can be.

The funny thing is I think the guys with whom I work get this on some level–particularly as far as my being a woman and their being men. Because even white men and white women differ in terms of what’s funny and types of discussions and such, which is probably why the white female tech geek in my area hardly speaks, too. My boss maybe doesn’t get it, and she’s a white female. But the guys and I have an understanding, basically, that when they start talking about dumb stuff I will just ignore them and tune them out. I told them that I do this. They think that’s a great idea. They talk about dumb stuff, in my opinion, 90% of the time. That means 90% of the time, we’re not going to communicate with each other. I’m new–I’m not going to come in and demand that people who have been working there act differently, especially when I’m pretty fine with everything anyway. But I’m not going to pretend they are interesting or funny to me, either.

People at my new job talk an excessive amount about drinking and getting drunk. I went to predominantly white universities, and white students did this, as well. I can count on one hand the number of blacks I’ve met my entire life who have talked about drinking the way white people seem to. And all of them were black guys, and I think pretty much all of them were black guys who mainly hung around non-blacks. I’m not saying there aren’t “regular” black people who love to drink, just that I don’t know any (except my screwed-up brother-in-law, whom I’d really rather not know). I will drink beer every now and then, and I know blacks who drink every now and then. But good grief, we do not sit and talk every…single…day about drinking. So, I cannot contribute to–or, really, even tolerate too much–these incessant conversations. And I’m not saying all white people talk excessively and incessantly about alcohol–that’s not my point.

So, this brings me back to the issue of whether or not I should have been hired due to a lack of cultural fit. Well, all I have to say about that is, to me, the legal field–and probably usually the information technology field, as well–treats women and minorities as if THEY are the problem by not hiring them as much as they hire white men based on “fit.” As long as cultural fit is a factor, it’s pretty much always going to be used against minorities and oftentimes will also be used against even white women. To me, it should not be a matter of “fit” but a matter of who can do the job the best–every time.

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5 thoughts on “Fitting In At Work…NOT

  1. From what I read in the first part of your post, I would say that you were hired for your worth ethic and skills. I really related to what you were saying because I also lament the loss of the hard working people I have worked with in the past. I have put this down to a change in values between generations. I don’t place much importance on fitting in socially at work because I feel that I am there to get a job done not be friends with people I work with. For the most part the only thing we have in common is we work for the same company.

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  3. Reddone says:

    Thank you for this. I am working in an environment and I live in SC. I am originally from NYC. I have been down here for over half of my life and I understand what you are saying completely. I too am a Black female. My job consist of people talking to the managers freely and there is no real work ethic. It’s crazy. However, I can admit that I have NEVER felt like I fit in. Even in grade school. So I feel like the issue is me but at the age of 36 I feel that it’s high time I start accepting myself and not being so sad about it. I cannot just sit and talk about NOTHING. I can do it for a minute and then I go back to my office and work. Why? Because I’m at work and that’s what I’m being paid to do. Again than you for this.

    • Thanks for the response. I have never fit in, either. I don’t view myself as the issue, nor do I believe you’re the issue. People are just different, and sometimes people like you walk away wondering if you’re the issue because you see so many people who DO fit into whatever environment they’re in. Even though sometimes it seems like being like the people who fit in is the way to go, I see signs other times that some of those people are really just hurting themselves by half-assing their jobs and running their mouths all day. People notice that stuff, and they talk behind these people’s backs.

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