Ever heard of Paul Potts or Susan Boyle?

Both competed in Britain’s Got Talent. As they walked on stage the first time, you could feel a collective cringe and see eyeballs rolling. The judges and audience seemed to be incredulous. They flinched, groaned, and stifled laughter.

Once Paul and Susan began to sing, however, the audience was riveted. Listeners fell in love with these two gifted performers.

Guilty until proven innocent

As I watched their unpolished stage presence, I came to some sobering realizations about workforce diversity:

  1. We teach our kids, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” But we rarely live by this principle. If a cover doesn’t catch our attention, we pass it by and assume the book lacks masterpiece potential.
  2. We similarly judge people. We base our first impressions on external appearance. Grooming. Teeth. Attire. Accessories. Accent. We notice scuffs on shoes, extra pounds, and age. Then, we unconsciously jump to conclusions about the person’s potential and abilities. We decide in a split second whether individuals are competent, even before they’ve opened their mouths to speak.
  3. Our internal judgments come through, plain as day, in our facial expressions and body language.
  4. We let our judgments stand until an employee or candidate proves us wrong. This is akin to “guilty until proven innocent.” In legal circles, we’d cry foul and claim injustice. Shouldn’t we also cry foul in the workplace?
  5. When we recruit people to do work, we don’t know their potential until they actually do the work. We might ask them to do a sample project as part of the interview process, but that step typically comes after initial screening interviews. Imagine interviewing Potts and Boyle for singing roles, but not letting them sing. By what criteria would you judge them?

Leaders and organizations say they prize diversity. But actions speak louder than words. In reality, I think we respect diversity only after a “different” person proves him/herself.

Who have you written off?

Potts and Boyle had such strong dreams that they were able to overcome the audience’s initial reaction and win them over.

I bet most employees don’t have this conviction or courage. They lack the “dream-pull” and confidence to overcome the visual of being rejected. Unsupportive facial expressions can shut down some people and keep an employer from ever seeing their potential.

Often, a manager or recruiter will “write off” candidates before they even have a chance to prove themselves. Some supervisors will never change their opinions, no matter how much prowess an employee demonstrates.

As recruiting and retention become harder in many industries, employers need to get in touch with their own prejudices. Your next great employee may be Cinderella—someone with inner beauty and smarts who outwardly appears not to “fit the mold.”

If you write off people based on first impressions, you risk missing out on some powerful voices that can take your business to the next level.

Test yourself

If you haven’t seen Susan Boyle’s initial appearance on Britain’s Got Talent, watch this video.

  • What are the first characteristics you notice about Boyle?
  • Imagine Boyle in your office for a job interview. What emotional reaction do you have to her? What’s your initial gut opinion of her?
  • List the audience reactions you notice. Would these reactions be O.K. in your workplace? Would they make an employee feel welcomed and valued?

And here’s a video of Paul Potts.

When we reflexively act from a prejudiced place, are we really prizing diversity?

More resources

Does “book cover bias” affect the way you manage some employees? Find out by completing the free questionnaire at www.ManagingPeopleBetter.com. As you think about each question, is your response uniform for all the employees who report to you? If not, are the variations in your management approach justified?

Additional reading on this topic: Straight talk on workplace prejudice

Leigh Steere
Co-founder, Managing People Better, LLC—a management research firm/think tank. Professional kettle-stirrer. Writer. Curriculum developer. Connect with Leigh on her LeadChange profile, website, or Twitter and check out the Managing People Better assessment where you can get some feedback on your management style and help with a research project.
Leigh Steere