Bias and the “pretty” factor

Yesterday I had a meeting where a client referred to me as “having all the soul of an ATM machine.” Since I was not sure how to react to that, I merely ignored the comment, clipped the check he was receiving to his executed copy of the final documents and receipt, then stood and left the room with my professional smile in place. The associate handling the transaction finished up and showed him out, then came to my office and apologized for the man’s rudeness.

Since the associate was not the rude one, he did not owe me an apology, and I seriously doubt the client regretted his behavior. I suspect he is always unpleasant to some degree to work for or work with; it just happened to be my day to be his target. The associate remarked he this particular client has some latent misogynistic tendencies and had stated, loudly, that he preferred their former male business manager.

I have been contemplating how different that sounds coming from a male about another male. Truth be told I tend to take it more seriously when that label is applied by a man to another man, far more so than I do when it comes from another woman about a man.

And I hate that my experience has caused me to develop this type of bias.

In my prior firm my admin once had my job. She was proficient at the job, but both owners and most all of the employees did not particularly care for her or her micromanaging style of managing office matters. However, the owners took her threats to sue them for various forms of harassment seriously, far too much so in my opinion. However, I am not routinely a rule breaker, and as businessmen my former bosses were just shady enough to have concerns about what she might be able to prove as far as their wrong doings. But I think she swung that label brush a lot too liberally, plus tended to speak in ways that would encourage any unsuspecting staff members to engage in unprofessional boys-will-be-boys attitudes and behaviors.

During my tenure there, women were outnumbered by men in at least a 4:1 ratio, and by the time I left it was more like 6:1. It was not because the leadership did not want to hire women; it was because for every qualified male applying for positions when they came available we had only lesser qualified females or none at all. I was a corporate officer and considered on par with the owners when it came to business decisions and running the firm, opportunities the admin was never allowed although she tried very hard to carve our responsibilities that elevated her to that level of power. When she was repeatedly denied that, she cried gender discrimination and even went so far as to file a complaint with the state labor board. Her claim was subsequently investigated and dismissed without merit, but that was enough for the owners to give her wide berth going forward.

When she became pregnant and decided she wanted to return part-time, there was much discussion among the then board of directors as to how to proceed. They determined they wanted someone full-time and more experienced as a chief financial officer and firm administrator. They told her this, documented the discussions about what her role would be upon return from maternity leave. The proceeded to recruit and hire me, and when I came on board and met her the first time, she told me that until I was hired she had “no idea” she would not be returning to her former position, and that is was discriminatory to demote her based on having a baby and desiring to go part-time. I pointed out she here hourly rate would stay the same and her benefits would continue based on the firm’s established policy toward part-time permanent employees. Essentially, she did not have a case.

In the years we worked together, every time she did not get what she wanted or had to perform a task she did not care for it was the misogynistic boss or project manager or one of the field technicians to blame; according to her none of the men in the firm liked women. Since I had zero problems working with anyone else of either gender, I finally suggested in that maybe the issue was the staff did not especially like working with her. I never felt disrespected or minimized because I am a woman. In addition, our female drafting technician and our receptionist had no complaints about anyone in the office. If my admin could ever provide me with a specific example of the misogyny she saw and felt everywhere, we could discuss it further. Left unsaid but definitely implied, I expect you to back off and shut the f–k up with your petulant princess whining. Had she pressed the issue, I probably would have said it out loud, very slowly so she could not profess to misunderstanding what I meant.

I am nothing if not clear and direct about how I feel. After that, she rarely played the gender card in our discussions. Why the owners would never let me fire her remains one of the great mysteries of my career.

Anyway, things are very different now. My present firm there are more men than women, but again, I seriously doubt gender discrimination is responsible. People seem to get along very well and in my months here as a contractor and now as an employee I have yet to encounter a rabble-rousing pot-stirrer. Hopefully it is always so peaceful.

Today in a meeting the issue of bias and the “pretty” factor came up, and it actually caught me off-guard. The partners and I were having our weekly meeting to discuss the state of the firm, resources, staff, upcoming issues, etc. We are about to embark on a recruiting blitz to bring on at least 2 additional associates and perhaps another paralegal. I was listening, taking notes, and the discussion veered to a prior candidate that they almost hired several months ago but instead went with someone else, another male. One of the paralegals commented in passing at the time that the decision must have come down to appearance, as the other candidate was not as physically attractive as the successful candidate, a fit, good looking guy. Apparently the comment has lingered in one partner’s mind. Was it a factor in their hiring decision?

Frankly, I was astounded. I appreciate their trust in my discretion and common sense – these are lawyers, after all, and talking about even the possibility of discrimination is surprising – but I was curious and interested in what happened last year and why they felt it might be something worthy of examination and revisiting for the next stage of hiring.

The candidate in question was bright and 2 years out of law school, same as the successful candidate. Her experience was also comparable, and her “fit” within the existing mix of staff seemed fine as well. However, the associate hired just had an indefinable something that made him their first choice. Zero regrets about this choice 8 months later.

But recruiting is time consuming and expensive in terms of hours and energy expended. When billable hours is the primary source of revenue, time is literally money. This other candidate was a very close second choice who is still seeking a permanent firm; perhaps a second look is in order?

Taking a candid look around the firm and our staff, I can see that there could be an issue if one is looking for basis to find an issue. At 54 I am the oldest employee in the firm, and generally speaking, there is no gross obesity (I would be the closest to that and I feel pretty normal in my current size 12/14 configuration). A couple of the ladies are more curvy and a couple are angular and lean without trying. The men all manage to look trim or fit.

I actually feel as if I am a terrible judge of physical attractiveness. There is the obvious, mainstream pretty and handsome sort of attractive that I can understand, but for me how attractive or unattractive a person is tends to evolve and get better or worse as I get to know them. In my mind it is A LOT dependent upon intelligence, personality, and compassion toward others. I am nearly always drawn to smart people, and if they are kind to other people, animals, and have a sense of humor they become more and more endearing and attractive to me. Of course, I have always considered myself to be so under average in physical appearance and attractiveness matters I tend not to judge. However, I have on occasion felt the judgment in others, or think I do. But in my world, if stuff like that feels real in my mind it manifests as part of my reality.

The second choice candidate under discussion was described as grossly overweight and not conventionally pretty. There was something about her appearance that made her somehow less likeable, although none of the partners seemed to be able to put their finger on precisely what it was. She did not smile readily and seemed very tentative when she did, not a great quality for an attorney. But was that a point held against her in the head-to-head qualifications and staff chemistry fit selection process? Probably. Acknowledged or not, it does make a difference. It is part of why last summer appearance was part of my initial impetuous decision to return to a gym environment for exercise and pursuit of getting into better shape. Better health quickly overtook that objective. But I knew I would be seeking new employment opportunities and I felt being mid-50s and not looking my best were not going to get me further in the recruiting process when competing against others 20+ years younger. It was part of my reasoning to start covering the abundance of gray in my very dark hair. It is why I still think about learning how to artfully use cosmetics (but still not there yet).

I wish the process of job hunting were different. I wish we could blind ourselves to our conscious and unconscious biases and give everyone an absolutely level playing field. Reality is we all have some preference in most things. Being aware at work and in hiring decisions may keep us on the straight and narrow and this side of the law with regard to recruiting practices, but discrimination happens, and it’s not always age or gender based. Obesity and “pretty” bias are real issues in employment and hiring practices.

In truth I do not think they hired pretty boy candidate over someone more qualified yet less physically attractive. He is a charming, hard-working employee and has been since day one, and everyone is delighted with his productivity and initiative.

Second guessing their choices in this situation is pointless. After discussing it this morning, the decision was made to open the floor to traditional recruiting methods. Should she contact us or submit an updated resume we should most definitely bring her back for a second look, but I felt strongly that contacting her for a second look was the wrong course of action. What if 2 different someones turned up that we felt were stronger candidates and better fits for our needs at this time? Not only had we sort of cherry-picked her for another round of recruiting, if we did not hire her on the second blitz it would be very bad form.

I have a valid point, one based on my own feelings if in her place. Growing up and feeling like the nerdy ugly duckling in a pond full of more brilliant and beautiful to boot swans has its merits.

But it turns the spotlight toward my own bias and preference. The picture is not always a pretty one, considering the confidence-destroying voices inside my head. Knowing is half the battle, as GI Joe says. It’s the other half – correcting what I think I know – that gives me so much grief.

Happy Friday everyone!

4 thoughts on “Bias and the “pretty” factor

  1. I know that bias exists, but It shocks me that your colleagues would come right out and say that the second choice candidate was grossly overweight and not conventionally pretty. If appearance was a factor in not hiring her, it’s pretty sad. I am quite overweight, but very well groomed, personable and very hard-working. I wonder if people know (or care) that sometimes other factors can cause weight gain, such as thyroid and other health issues. Maybe the candidate’s tentative smile was due to nervousness. Sometimes we try harder because we have to compensate for being unattractive to people :\

    • I phrased it that way not because they were being unkind toward her, merely my own observation from looking at her online profile and the general comments about her demeanor and interaction versus the successful candidate. My point here was more about perspective and ensuring that there is no additional heartbreak by contacting her again and then perhaps finding she is still not a quite right fit. It’s a bias I know exists and that I would like to ensure is highlighted as a blind spot we may suffer from.

  2. I think you are right about not contacting her again. I think one more thing that stacks the deck against obese people is the confidence – or lack of – with which they carry themselves. Any discomfort they have with their body/appearance comes though especially in a stressful situation.

    • You know, I am fairly empathetic and “read” people pretty well. I think their discomfort was that it MIGHT be her appearance, but more and more I feel it was her buttoned-up-ness that was the issue. Ours is a fairly free-wheeling firm, people are encouraged to speak their minds and from what the girls said about her, she seemed more reserved and gave off an “you’re making me uncomfortable” sort of vibe.

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