5 Uncomfortable Observations About Workforce Diversity

by  Leigh Steere  |  Leadership Development

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 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

About The Author

Articles By leigh-steere
Leigh Steere is a researcher, product developer, and adviser in the field of people management. She writes on fostering creativity, employee engagement, and high performance in the workplace. Visit for a free assessment of your management style and tips for managing more effectively.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Jenifer Olson (@jenajean)  |  09 Mar 2012  |  Reply


Beautifully said. I think there is a tendency in each of us to surround ourselves with people who look, think and act just as we do. Unfortunately, I also think this narrow focus can breed a homogenized and mediocre workforce, which in turn, can make our businesses less competitive in this tough global economy.

But here’s the rub: even if the Susan Boyles and Paul Potts of the world somehow manage to make it through the HR screening processes, rounds of interviews and actually get hired, they often find themselves isolated on the job by the other employees. When others have informal discussions about work issues, go out to lunch together or meet over the weekend, these “non-conformists” are rarely part of the group unless they are in a position of influence. And even then, their inclusion isn’t always wholehearted, but one of resigned acceptance.

I’ve seen this happen again and again in my career, both as an employee and a manager, despite my best efforts to thwart it. For real change to take place, I think diversity has to be valued at the very top of an organization and championed as a cultural norm. Do you agree?

A few months back, I wrote a post on workplace diversity, too. I’d love your thoughts:

Thanks, again! Great topic!

Leigh Steere  |  11 Mar 2012  |  Reply


I agree. And I love your distinction of “wholehearted inclusion” versus “resigned acceptance.” How true!

Thank you for taking the time to comment and for the link to your post. I hope others will visit your post, too. My favorite paragraph: “Older workers shouldn’t assume younger workers are less capable, but neither should younger workers view those with years of experience as having exceeded their expiration date. When we stereotype each other—by race, gender, age or any other characteristic that ultimately doesn’t matter to doing the job well—we limit what we can achieve as individuals and organizations, and even as a nation.” Bravo.


Crystal  |  09 Mar 2012  |  Reply

I think that this can also fall in line with “dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” If your intentions, like Boyle, are to be a professional singer, then you have to dress the part. Being a great singer is a lot more than that these days and it launches you into celebrity status – they are called the “beautiful people” for a reason. You are expected to be a certain something and even Boyle herself (while most deem her unattractive) is actually an average looking woman. She simply chooses not to make herself more attractive because that is her gimmick, and hey, it worked!

The same can be said for office roles. If I am allowed to wear jeans on a daily basis, as is becoming more popular in corporate offices, but choose to dress more formally, chances are, I will be taken more seriously by my peers and supervisors. Even at a job where I could wear jeans daily, I would never dress that way to the interview at that corporation. Put your best foot forward. I take that with me into my job as well, sure the dress code is business casual, but that doesn’t mean I can’t wear a great suit that makes me “appear” to be a higher level than I am. It might not be fair and it may be biased of people to think this way, but the fact is, it’s the way it has always been and it is unlikely to change. The next time another Susan Boyle comes around, she’ll have to prove herself in the same way.

Leigh Steere  |  11 Mar 2012  |  Reply

This is sort of a catch-22, isn’t it? You are right—it’s always been this way. But I wonder…who defines how to “dress the part”? The fashion industry? Obviously, “dressing the part” has changed dramatically over the years.

In 1868, Harpers Bazaar published a photo showing appropriate hemline by age. “The hemline should descend toward the ankle as a girl gets older.” Today, many view a too-long skirt hemline in the workplace as frumpy.

In the 18th century, important men wore (what we now consider) ridiculous wigs. Today, we see these only in theater and Halloween costumes.

Somehow, somewhere, someone decided tattoos, too many piercings, and pink hair aren’t professional. Hmmm.

How many great minds do we overlook, because the window dressing rankles something inside us?

Tim Berry  |  11 Mar 2012  |  Reply

Leigh, congrats, this is very well done and makes an excellent point. I don’t think anybody can read this and not see the truth in it. You reminded me of how in the past I caught myself discounting people with certain accents, as if some accents are better (or smarter) than others.

Well, full disclosure: I didn’t catch myself, actually, a guy with an accent caught me, called me on it, and on reflection, I realized he was right. That was an eye opener for me.

And I completely agree with your conclusions: we all lose out.

Leigh Steere  |  12 Mar 2012  |  Reply

Thanks, Tim. I appreciate your sharing your story. I think most all of us have a story (or 10 or 100) of discounting a person over a surface issue like accent.

Earlier in my career, I toured the underwriting office of an insurance company. The person leading the tour began, “These folks do not interface with outside customers, so we do not require a strict dress code here.”

That disclaimer did not prepare me for the bunny slippers, Michael Jackson glove, and curlers I witnessed in those hallways.

I still find myself looking at others’ footwear and jumping to conclusions. I’m sure they’re looking at mine, too.

Gary Dee, Portland, Oregon  |  11 Mar 2012  |  Reply

We’re seeing that in spades with the recovery since the end of the Great Recession, officially after June 2009. Age discrimination and even dismissal of consideration for anybody not already employed. A lot of talent forced out of the work force permanently, which ultimately frustrates the pace of the recovery which has taken 30 months to finally see job growth beyond (net) break even (with work force growth).

Leigh Steere  |  12 Mar 2012  |  Reply

I agree, Gary. It frustrates the recovery, and it’s a stale approach.

Many long-term unemployed have used their “time off” to hone new skills. Automatically dismissing them from consideration for a job is short-sighted. So is any other blanket policy regarding a specific demographic group. Some employers still shy away from hiring former military personnel, mothers who are re-entering the workforce after extended absences, etc.

I’m hoping this post will prompt business leaders to identify their own biases and review their recruiting processes.

Deborah Costello  |  13 Mar 2012  |  Reply

I don’t know if you’ve seen “The Voice,” but the initial tryouts attempt to eliminate this bias by blinding the judges and having them choose participants based solely on voice. Of course once they are chosen, the competition continues with everything in view, but it is an interesting concept, in keeping with your premise that we too make judgments. Thank you for this important reminder.

Sandra  |  17 Mar 2012  |  Reply

Wonderful article. I work with people globally every single day and have learnt to appreciate how much first impressions can often color how I perceive things. When I remember to pause and seek to understand where someone is coming from — my life is enriched and the work gets done (usually even better than expected!!) Thanks for posting!

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