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Straight talk on workplace prejudice

3 min read


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

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?