An HR view: Potential employers do judge a book by its cover

HenryHenryBy BARBI HENRY
    Here is the joke: Two people apply for the same position in a (insert your company product here) environment. They both start their interviewing process on the same day. One is an applicant who looks like he just walked off the Mad Men set and the other looks like he works at that place in the mall with the black lights and odd “party favors” for bachelorette parties. They both went to the same university and have the same type of degree. They interview well in their own unique way and either one would be an excellent match for the type of work being offered. Which one gets hired?
    Here in the middle of the great United States of America, in the region known as the Southern Illinois, I would venture to guess that most of our businesses would hire the “Mad Men” applicant. Why? Because he represents our region’s conservative values and family beliefs. Would that be a fair assessment of the character and integrity of our applicants? Maybe, maybe not. While I am not going to talk about those divisive topics, politics and religion, both applicants could come in on the same side of the issues, the horror. What I will say is that regardless of who we are or how long we have been hiring, we do judge a book by its cover.
    Appearance and attitude do matter, and not just a little bit. In my career, I have hired everything from a cocktail waitress in a casino to a licensed psychiatrist for a behavioral health provider and everything in between. Was I looking for the same appearance from those two very different people? Let me ask you this, what did you picture in your head when I said, “cocktail waitress?” I can only imagine, and let me just say that I did have a young lady show up for that interview in a tube top and a miniskirt that my mom would never have let me out of the house in. Or, can you imagine going to see your new psychiatrist at his office and he comes out with a ring in his nose, tattooed from his earlobes down to his knuckles with a plug in his ear? Would you go back for that second appointment that you were asked to make before you left? I really doubt it. Unfortunately, I think we do judge people by the way they look and the attitudes they demonstrate.
    Another example is a close friend who is all of 5-foot-tall and has a strong southern accent. She is also one of the best labor relations negotiators on the company side that I know. You really don’t want to “handle” that “little lady” like a little southern belle or you will have your new labor contract served to you on a silver platter. Does she look like the “normal” company negotiator? No, but she has an amazing understanding of what she does and gets the best outcome for the company possible. She has both, the non-conforming appearance and the attitude. Does it benefit the company? I believe so.
    Where do we draw the line on what is acceptable by us as employers? We all post those Department of Labor signs that say we will not discriminate based on the whole laundry list of Title VII items, but what about those other visual and attitude markers? Do we “profile” or fear those we do not understand or have anything in common with? Regardless of whether we will admit it to each other, I think we might. If applicants do not fit our “clean cut, Midwestern values” system on a visual inspection, will we even listen to what comes out of their mouths?
    Let’s think about that attitude for a moment. Once I had the parent of a 19-year-old employee call me and rake me over the coals because their precious millennial received a disciplinary action (deserved) for attendance. Aside from the fact that I refuse to speak with anyone other than the employee regarding an employee, I was amazed that the parent thought they had the right to give me a piece of their mind, really? When did THAT become OK? Every day we deal with people who work for us who don’t want to do the work that is expected of them and some get downright offended when we ask them to do something within the job description that they were hired into. Is that a reflection on our parenting and the work ethic of those who are going to be running our country in a few years? The bigger question is, can we do something about it?
    Do we instill our values on our younger employees by setting the example, such as asking an employee to do something that we wouldn’t do? An example needs to be set with everything that we want our employees doing, wearing, or how they interact with co-workers, while remembering that this group is being raised to be themselves and not fit into someone’s cookie-cutter image.
    Ok, now for the punchline of the joke: I think that we need to reassess why we are hiring someone in the first place. Could it be they are the exact right fit for the position or maybe even a more talented prospect than you had hoped for? My theory is that we will have to invest in our staff so they can understand our values, priorities and what brings us joy. The flip side of that is that we need to learn from them as well, and not expect them to be like us and realize that we are not just in Southern Illinois anymore, Dorothy.
    Barbara Henry, SPHR, SHRM-SCP is a human resources and labor relations manager for a Chesterfield Mo., company. She holds a Master’s Degree in Business Administration from Fontbonne University and a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.