I was a married mother of two when I landed my first “real” job—complete with a salary, benefits, and free snacks at meetings. But I soon discovered that my plum gig came with an unwritten requirement: Employees were expected to spend extra money and time on group lunches and twice-weekly drinks.
This kind of socializing was necessary in order to get ahead. But I brought my lunch most days to save money, and needed to leave work by 4:30 in order to pick up my kids. So I focused on doing my work well while being friendly with my coworkers around the office.
When I had my first performance review, I expected praise and perhaps a small raise. Instead I was told that I needed to be more of a team player. The lone black employee in my division, I wasn’t fitting in with my (white, single, childless) co-workers. “You need to make more of an effort,” my manager said, her face stern. I don’t think it occurred to her or to my coworkers that I wasn’t being antisocial. I just had different demands on my time and income.
As organizations increasingly emphasize the importance of “cultural fit,” it’s time to acknowledge the problems with mandatory socializing. The idea of a harmonious workplace where staffers commune over hipster tacos and microbrews sounds good in theory. But the expectation that employees treat workplace bonding as an extracurricular activity turns out to be a recipe for homogenous spaces—with workers from marginalized communities on the losing end. For working parents and people with limited disposable income, the cost of mandatory socializing can be prohibitive.
There’s ample evidence that companies with strong cultures are more productive. But when hiring managers appraise job candidates for cultural fit, they don’t actually look for people who align with organizational values. Instead, they select the people who are most like them, as Northwestern University professor of management Lauren Rivera writes in The New York Times. Evaluating someone based on a shared affinity for kayaking, homebrew, and polo is a great way to choose a roommate or a fraternity member. But putting cultural fit first at work often means ignoring the role that class, race and gender play in shaping our hobbies, college backgrounds, and tastes.
My coworkers, for example, bonded at lunch over their dating lives and the quest to find the perfect yoga pants. They couldn’t really relate to worrying about the cost of daycare. I didn’t think the fact that we had little in common in our lives outside the office was a problem. To me, it had no bearing on our ability to collaborate on projects. But the expectation that coworkers should be friends with one another was built into my company’s ethos—and that’s the crux of the problem. In the end, cultural fit often serves as a way for companies to discriminate while paying lip service to the importance of diversity. Recruiters and managers hire and promote people they can relate to—which often means those who are white, male, cis-gendered and able-bodied.
If cultural fit doesn’t weed out diversity during the hiring process, mandatory socializing ensures that people who are already privileged are the ones who rise to the top. Company socializing may be intended to build better teams, but research shows that it doesn’t actually bridge racial divides.
A 2013 study published in Organization Science found that people who were racially different from the majority of their coworkers felt obligated to attend work social events. Unlike their coworkers, however, people from a minority background did not feel closer to their colleagues afterward. When corporate cultures hinge on a specific set of norms dictated in part by race and class, it makes sense that people with different norms will feel uncomfortable when required to mingle in settings that have not been designed to include them. This defeats the purpose of team-building efforts. Moreover, while women’s liberation and the civil rights movements have made the American workplace more diverse, many common post-work activities—from company softball teams to golf games to late-night bonding around the office kegerator—are still designed to cater to the tastes and lifestyles of privileged single employees with money to burn and few outside obligations.
The same pressures apply to working parents—particularly women, who still tend to bear more of the child-care burden. Dr. Sarah Rutherford, a diversity consultant, describes the importance of after-work drinks in her book Women’s Work, Men’s Cultures. People who skip the pub after work miss out on “office gossip, what promotions are going, buying a useful colleague or boss a drink, deciding what we all think about so and so, or finding out useful bits of information about the job when it’s very competitive and there is no formal training,” she writes. In other words, mothers are forced to choose between gaining useful workplace intel that can help them get a promotion (and better support their families) or spending quality time with their kids. It’s no surprise the gender wage gap widens as women move further along in their careers and begin to juggle family responsibilities in addition to their job duties.
It’s clear we need to change the way we think about cultural fit. This will work to the benefit of companies as well as their employees: Studies have shown that diverse teams consistently outperform homogenous ones. That’s because when people from a broad array of experiences get together to brainstorm, they’re able to draw on a wider range of diverse backgrounds to come up with smarter, more creative ideas.
If kindergartners can learn to get along with people who aren’t exactly like them, we ought to ask at least as much of adults. So if companies really care about building strong teams, they need to recognize that the best workplace culture is a flexible one. They should get feedback from all employees about what kinds of events they would enjoy—and make sure that scheduled activities are free, culturally sensitive, and inclusive of differing age groups and lifestyles. It’s also important for company-sponsored events to take place during work hours, so that people can still get home at a reasonable time. Coworkers can bond over an in-office lunch or an employee picnic that welcomes families just as well, if not better, as they can over a whiskey tasting.
Tracy Dumas, an assistant professor of management and human resources at Ohio State University and lead author of the Organization Science study on workplace socializing and racial divides, suggests that companies may also want to rethink their emphasis on socializing. “Sometimes you can create cohesion around the work task itself—you don’t need outside social interaction,” she tells Business News Daily. “If everyone can feel good about the work they do and celebrate the successes they achieve together, it is not necessary to find ways to connect outside of work.” After all, the point of having a job is to get work done—not to develop a whole new set of friendships.