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Workplace culture: Can I be fired for not fitting in? Ask HR

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 7/13/2021 Johnny C. Taylor Jr.

Johnny C. Taylor Jr., a human resources expert, is tackling your questions as part of a series for USA TODAY. Taylor is president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, the world's largest HR professional society.

The questions are submitted by readers, and Taylor's answers below have been edited for length and clarity.

Have a question? Do you have an HR or work-related question you’d like me to answer? Submit it here.

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Question: Can my employer fire me for not being a "culture fit?" I've been at my company for 10 months. – Maurice

Johnny C. Taylor Jr.: As tough as it may be to swallow, your employer can indeed fire you for not being a cultural fit, provided the decision is not motivated by illegal discriminatory bias.

The employment-at-will doctrine applies in all states, except Montana, and allows employers the legal right to terminate employment with or without notice and with or without cause for any reasons not explicitly prohibited by law. Race, color, religion, gender, national origin, disability, age, and genetic information are considered illegal discriminatory criteria.

In cases of termination or any adverse employment action, the burden of proof typically falls on employers to demonstrate a legitimate business reason that is in no way discriminatory. I am not privy to the specifics of your termination, but your employer should be responsible for clearly articulating their rationale.

Several work factors fall under the umbrella of culture including, but not limited to, work performance, personality, work style, work ethic, or ability to work as a team. Once a performance or behavioral fit issue arises, employers should candidly address them with the employee. Regardless of tenure or status, employers have the option of allowing time for improvement or terminating immediately provided they follow protocol.

Similarly, employees can and do choose to resign for any reason they see fit. Make no mistake, the employee and employer relationship can be as volatile or as harmonious as any relationship. But just because you may not be seen as a fit for one situation does not rule out that you may be the ideal fit for another. In the long term, a proper fit matters a great deal.

Over time, I have come to view culture as the fundamental defining element of the workplace. If the work is what an organization does, workplace culture is how an organization does it. With that in mind, organizations should be purposeful in cultivating their culture. Your former employer may very well be within their right to seek a better cultural fit.

Nonetheless, I challenge you to seek an organizational culture that aligns with your persona as you move forward. I hope you find the right career fit for you.

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Q: “As employers work to keep workplaces safe, what kind of responsibility do you have to tell your boss what you’re doing outside of work? And what role do employers play in educating employees about their potential risks outside of work?” – Anonymous

Taylor: There is no doubt: What people do outside of work can and does affect what happens in the workplace. While workers are under no obligation to share details of their personal lives, how they live most assuredly impacts others around them. When an employee’s outside activities can potentially jeopardize workplace safety, the responsible thing to do is to inform the employer.

Workers – personal lives and all  – are intrinsically linked to the workplace. Realistically, people spend more of their waking hours at or on the way to work than anywhere else. So naturally, it would be sensible to be considerate of those around us. Let’s be honest: We’d all like to know if the person we are working beside poses a risk to our personal health and safety.

Some employers even have policies around disclosing potential hazards. Employers can and should promote healthy behavior at and away from the workplace, but avoid regulating what employees do away from work.

I’ll say this: Employees and employers, both have a role to play but each should recognize their boundaries. For employees, only information relevant to safety is necessary and appropriate to disclose. Conversely, employers should tread lightly when it comes to employees’ personal activities.

Employers can provide workplace safety training, policies, or at least imperative reminders about what safety means in a pandemic. Employers can also inform employees about Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations and state and local public health agencies guidance for workplaces.

Employees and employers share responsibility and a vested interest in creating a safe work environment. Open communication and suitable boundaries are essential to making that happen. Good luck and be safe.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Workplace culture: Can I be fired for not fitting in? Ask HR



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