Friday, September 17, 2010

Stereotypes, Prejudice and Job Search

One of the challenges we face during our job hunt is the unstated beliefs or stereotypes the hiring person/organization have about some group we are part of. An ugly word for this is “prejudice” and we all have them. We all think we can guess what’s inside the book by looking at the cover; at least a little. In my case, when I turned fifty, I realized my view of “old” was completely haywire. My opinion was based on my five uncles, all of whom were pretty much worn out by their 50th birthdays, so when I turned 50, I expected to look in the mirror at an old man. You know the drill: smoker’s cough, balding, gray hair, pot belly, weak back, bad eye sight, maybe some hearing problems....

But I didn’t fit that stereotype

The guy I saw in the mirror had a full head of dark -brown hair, a dark -brown beard, ran 20 or more miles every week and who was just beginning to gain real traction with his career. I found I needed to completely reinvent my understanding of age and aging! I had no idea I was prejudiced, I thought I was right and that “old” men looked and acted certain ways. It wasn’t until I was a member of this group that I understood how completely I had characterized other men based on the people in my past, not on the people I was dealing with.

Unfortunately, this is how all prejudice develops. We know, or have some experience with people who are categorized by their membership in some larger group and we confuse the path their lives took with some predefined/predetermined trajectory that is assigned to everyone in the group.

How does this impact job search?

Pretty simple, we all belong to groups and we don’t know what the hiring influence thinks about these groups. The challenge is dealing with it. My brother talks of “tribes”, meaning a group of people that identify with each other. Our goal is to portray ourselves as belonging to the tribe of people working at this office.

The first part of “dealing” with it is in our written communications: resume, cover letter, email, on-line presence, etc. The second part is in person, when, for the most part, the groups we are part of become pretty obvious. We have a visual presence: short, tall, black, white, fat, thin, old, young, etc., and those characteristics are pretty obvious in person. As soon as we open our mouths, we communicate what other groups we belong to. It is at this point that our interviewer determines, skills notwithstanding, whether you are someone s/he wants to work with. Of course this might take seven seconds or it might take the whole interview. But ultimately, s/he is determining if you are a member of his/her tribe.

Our written profile is reasonably easy to deal with: Things like a professional “head shot” allow us to choose the physical image we project, then when we write our resumes we portray our real experience with the energy and strength we really have. It is key to play to our own strengths. Check out my earlier posts about writing resumes, I’ve been fairly explicit about how to communicate your experience and current skills. A well done resume allows for a pretty complete focus on how you work and the value you can bring to a company.

Picking up new tools is an additional way to demonstrate your energy, commitment, etc. If you are currently unemployed, it’s an even better idea. Communicating that you continue to be committed to maintaining your currency is a challenge and there are precious few more effective ways than taking classes.

When you get an interview, do your homework about dress. After our physical presence, how we dress is the most important indicator of the “tribe” we belong to. Find a way to spend an evening watching the door to the company’s office – the place you’ll be working. What are people wearing? Is it shorts and t-shirts? Khakis and golf shirts? Sport jackets? Think “plus 1” for your interview clothes. If it’s “shorts and t-shirts” then nice jeans or khakis and a golf shirt or sport shirt, “sports jackets” would drive a suit, etc. If we do this right, we should immediately be perceived (at least physically) as potential members of the tribe of this company.

The point of all of this is to say that effectively countering someone’s possible stereotypes of you can only be dealt with via demonstration. My telling you I’m not like my uncles doesn’t mean anything to you. My describing the creation of Notes From the Job Search at the age of 61 creates the image of someone who continues to be passionate, committed to growth, learning and service… much more interesting.

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