Leigh Steere, co-founder of Managing People Better, unabashedly challenges the status quo. Read her posts at Lead Change Group and Ragan’s HR Communication, and check out the free “straight talk” management assessment at ManagingPeopleBetter.com.

The most dangerous stereotypes are the ones we act on without realizing our prejudice.

I recently sat in an upscale café with a colleague I hadn’t seen in years. We were celebrating her new job — an executive role at a big-name company. As we caught up on the news, I realized she had changed in a way I found unsettling.

Every decision she made — the color, make and model of her car; the label in her suit jacket; the address of her residence; the volunteer activities in which she participated; the restaurants where she dined — passed through the filter of “What will help my career? How can I groom myself for my next promotion?” Successful executives, she said, don’t drive minivans.

Here’s what bothered me most. She explained that clothing, cars and connections weighed heavily in which people she hired and promoted. Window dressing seemed as important to her as a candidate’s competency or potential. How sad, I thought.

Great employees come from many life circumstances.

“What’s wrong with driving a 10-year-old car?” I asked her. “Maybe an executive is postponing a vehicle purchase because he is financially supporting an ailing parent or putting three kids through college.”

Her response? “An old car won’t help his career.”

“Perhaps,” I ventured, “an executive is driving something modest for philosophical reasons such as wanting to donate as much money as possible to charity, instead of spending big dollars on material items.”

Her reply: “He’s still shooting himself in the foot.”

“What about a working mom who wears inexpensive machine-washable suiting, instead of dry-clean-only designer labels? When you get a daily dose of sticky-fingered hugs that leave pink yogurt on your trouser legs, you become more pragmatic in your clothing selection.”

Her comeback: “There’s a new gal in Accounting. She has black hair with a swath of magenta for dramatic effect. I assume you’d take her numbers seriously?”

Appearance does not predict employees’ knowledge and potential, right?

Some of the best, most competent employees with whom I’ve worked wouldn’t pass this clothing/car/connection screen. They drive beaters or take the bus, wear athletic shoes to the office or sport assorted piercings and bohemian wardrobes.

Think you are open-minded? Study these six photos of IBM Fellow John Cohn without reading the text. What assumptions do you make about him, based on the images alone? Now, read the post. Inspiring wisdom, eh? But my café companion would have dismissed Cohn as an undesirable job candidate based solely on his hairstyle.

Recent studies documenting common workplace prejudice:

Who are you writing off, consciously or unconsciously? Who are you passing over when deciding promotions? Who makes you cringe and why? (Discomfort is often an indicator of bias.)

Is the problem really the other person? Or are your prejudices standing in the way of attracting, engaging and retaining top talent?

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10 responses to “Straight talk on workplace prejudice”

  1. Mary Schaefer says:

    Leigh, what really strikes me besides the obvious wrong-headedness of such thinking, is what it implies for their judgment around business decisions besides those of hiring and promotion. Such a huge prejudice (I almost called it a blind-spot) has a vast ripple effect.

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience. If you were not a credible source, I would find it hard to believe such thinking still happens. Thanks for waking me up today. Mary

  2. James Strock says:

    This is a very interesting post with so many implications. Certainly such thinking is wrong-headed and so sadly limiting for everyone afflicted and affected by it.

    There is another troubling aspect. Some years ago a CEO of a large company explained to me how s/he strove to hire sales people who dressed and lived upscale. The reasoning: the expensive lifestyle would become golden handcuffs, tying the employees to the company.

    The prejudices you lay out so well can be part of a larger organizational culture of conformity, conventionality. While there can be comfort in mediocrity, ultimately, it's mediocrity, very far from excellence, innovation and creativity.

    The ultimate irony, of course, is that people who become slaves of convention such as your colleague, are reflecting a past iteration of style and expectation. When the next new thing comes along in executive fashion, she'll doubtless follow that as well.

    Perhaps at some point she'll learn to think for herself. And, just maybe, she'll find fulfillment as well as prosperity in the doing…..

  3. Jennifer Kubiak says:

    This is a welcome article in the face of the recently published study that says women who wear makeup are perceived as more competent. A breath of fresh air – thank you!!

  4. Thai Massage says:

    I think there are positions where appearance is important – for example if you work in sales or often represent your company to outsiders.
    But oftentimes, one could ask just as well: "With the amount of time and effort this person obviously spends on their appearance, how dedicated are they to actually doing a good job (even when nobody sees it)?"
    There's a story of Richard Branson walking into his house bank in flip flops and shorts requesting a multi-million dollar loan. Now that's a guy who got stuff done.

  5. Summer says:

    With our current economy and all the corporate issues of abuse of power and money, this clearly shows many still have not learned. If she feels that way about herself and others then the company she works for must spend money just for the sake of spending money. Not sure why being materialistic means good employee.

    I have experienced this several times in my career. I am a good employee, do a good job and am told so all the time. However, a few years ago my performance evaluation at a femail owned small biz was all about how I looked. From what I was wearing to my hair style and I didn't wear enough make up. Nothing about the work I did. In particular, they didn't like in the office I will often put on a nice scarf or wrap as I have a health condition and get cold in the air conditioned office. You must also know that I was working 12 – 14hr days in an office where no outside people come in, nor on most days did I have any in person contact with anyone out of the office. I also was covering IT so at any time would need to be crawling under desks, carrying equipment etc. I wasn't even wearing jeans. So, yes it is still very much alive in today's world.

  6. Bill says:

    It was my experience your appearance dictated how you were perceived by others as well as how you perceived yourself.

  7. roxie katz says:

    Years ago, a women-in-business group did a study where they asked top-level managers to describe their hyperthetical replacement. Most women described skills and qualities before appearance. Many of the men, however, described phsycial traits, right down to whether a class ring was worn. In both cases, the subjects described themselves. What does that tell us about who gets hired?

    I think your friend saved herself some grief. People too different from her probably wouldn't stay long in her company anyway.

  8. Darrell says:

    I'm not really surprised. There are schools that are contemplating having a school uniform because they have some data that suggests that when everyone is equal in dress, they tend to misbehave less. Some corporate execs seem to think that "the cloths make the man" and some work places have dress codes that stretch back several decades without change.

    Several of the comments were about women's looks and clothing, but I wonder about men's business suits and the unwritten rule that only men in ties can make decisions. It seems to be particularly acute the closer you get to Washington. I've been going to a convention the last couple of years that says that dress is CASUAL and ALL (without exception) of the Washington contingent wear a suit and tie. It caught me so off guard the first time that I ran back to my room and upgraded to at least a shirt and tie. I think next year I'll start a fashion trend of wearing a polo and see what happens.

  9. […] If not, are the variations in your management approach justified? Additional reading on this topic: Straight talk on workplace prejudice About Leigh Steere Co-founder, Managing People Better, LLC—a management research firm/think […]