Fortunately for me, I did not discover any of these things about Clare during the recruitment and interviewing stages of our relationship. If I had, it is quite plausible that I may not have offered her the job. Even then – I was in my mid-twenties – I was probably a fuddy-duddy and certainly, like most, inclined to surround myself with people like me; non-smoker, body-artless and scared witless of needles.
As it was, I only learned of Clare’s extensive tattoo-ing (literally a ‘body of work’, in fact), piercings and smoking – she did not light up during office hours – many years later. By that time, I was so pleased with her work that it would not have mattered if it evolved that she was a fully-fledged vampire, zombie or the founding member of the Steve Hofmeyr fan club.
I was reminded of my lucky oversight when I read recently that as many as a third of North Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 years are tattooed, while about half the population in their 20s have either a tattoo or a body piercing other than traditional earrings.
While there are no comparable figures available in SA, body art and piercings are universal trends, and it is completely conceivable that many of the people you interview for jobs at your company are pierced and/or painted.
My advice to you – with my limited experience – is to ignore the body art. But is it that easy? Is it possible and/or wise to overlook the presentation and appearance of potential employees?
While HR experts say that it is unlawful and unprofessional to single out applicants because of their physical appearance, most acknowledge that subliminal discrimination is almost inevitable and very difficult to preclude during recruitment processes, even by those who are trained in staffing matters.
“There is a natural tendency for people to recruit in their own image,” says Lee Kingma, group HR manager for SA publishing organisation, Juta And Company Ltd. “While this may not always be overtly discriminatory – and is regularly concealed when recruiters find other more innocuous reasons for non-selection – it can, in the worst cases, lead to disputes where recruits feel they have been unfairly treated or overlooked for a position due to their appearance.”
Worst case scenarios aside, what about those people, who – in your opinion, as an employer – are shabby in appearance (i.e. not built in your image) and yet, as Clare was for my company, could be the best person for the job?
That is why, says Kingma, it is essential, during interviews, to focus on whether the applicant has the basic and specialised skills required by the position, and to consider whether he or she has the necessary problem-solving skills and communication abilities to do the job. Rather than becoming obsessed by the black rose peeping above on his or her collar, find out whether the applicant has the personality and attitude that fit your company. Ignore nicotine stained fingers and consider his or her professional manner and dedication. Focus on the fact that you want a person whose job skills, work attitude and personality will help your company succeed.
She concurs though, that there are jobs that demand certain codes of appearance: “It depends on the industry and the position within the company. It is unlikely that the clientele of a top law firm or financial services company will be happy about being greeted at the reception by someone with multiple facial piercings or tattoos. At a trendy, young advertising agency however, it might be more acceptable.”
So, the best person for the job is a Goth. But you doubt that your longest-standing client, Mrs Sherman of the blue-rinse, has the heart for the applicant’s scarily white face, black clothing, heavy silver jewellery and demonically dark make-up. What to do?
It is simple, say the experts: Be upfront. Explain your concerns. Establish a dress code, be very specific and draw lines very clearly. Tell the applicant that these are the requirements of the position. Tell her it is a visibility issue and a matter of catering to your clientele. Be unambiguous about your demands before you offer her the job. If she accepts, you may just have found your Clare.
(First published in the Real Business supplement in Business Day in October 2006.)