Job applicants, unconscious bias and fear

What happens when you receive a job application from someone who is transgender?

Like other trans women I notice that I have a much lower success rate, in terms of progress to interview, than I did with the same skills and experience as a man. This is not unusual for those people in society who experience discrimination by the world of work. It affects people of different race, gender, sexuality, disability and age all the time.

There are practices and workflows that aim to remove as much discrimination and bias as possible from the recruiting process. But at the end of the day one person is being selected by one or more other people. Issues of unconscious bias, conscious bias and fear must be factors in all recruitment. It is often said that we make unconscious decisions about a person within seconds of meeting them. But it seems that we also make these decisions even before we first see them in person, we make them when reviewing their job application.

I suspect the bias against transgender people arrises most often when a potential employer is considering them for a customer facing role. All sorts of fears will be present concerning how customers will react: will the image of the organisation be adversely affected; would it be impossible for them to meet targets due to negative reactions. Of course the employers should be selecting on ability and relevant skills, and they should be acting in a way that does not contravene anti-discrimination legislation. But we all know this isn’t the way it works in most cases.

To some extent we select customer facing staff on appearance. I have always been conscious of looking “right” for the job I wish to be doing. And I remember working for one company who issued a copy of the book “Dress for Success” to all sales staff. There was a time when several US companies specified that they would not recruit men with beards in the UK. But think back to those people who have left a lasting impression on us in business. Was it the corporate, grey uniformed and otherwise unremarkable person? Or was it someone who, to an extent, stood out from the crowd? There are of course limits to this and a point does come where “different” can become inappropriate.

I remember a particular business trip to Seattle where my team from a global corporation were visiting a supplier. We received a presentation from one of their Senior VPs. He turned up in the clothes he always wore at the office, a sports shirt and shorts. His presentation was hard hitting and competent, and we all remembered it long after the trip was over.

So should we really be worried about recruiting obviously transgender staff? I do recognise here that many trans people are not obvious and may well never have to reveal or acknowledge their past. The potential employer will never know. But for others they cannot avoid it being known what they are ahead of anyone looking at who they are. I argue that trans staff in customer facing roles can be a unique asset.

Workshops to look at how we react to the unusual applicant can help here. Challenging bias, fears and assumptions are an important tool when training people in the recruitment process. Role play with a transgender person in particular can be valuable.

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