Thursday 24 August marked the 10th anniversary of the murder of Rossendale youth Sophie Lancaster: attacked alongside her boyfriend in 2007 by a gang of teenage males who – according to police – objected to the couple’s “alternative”, or “goth”, appearance.
The intervening years have done little to tame violent over-reactions towards those who choose to represent themselves in different, non-mainstream ways. A BBC article published on the anniversary catalogued a saddening pattern of continued abuse against individuals who announce their interest in alternative lifestyles – and particular music genres – via clothing choices, hairstyles, tattoos and body piercings.
Prejudice against such individuals is still a factor in the workplace, too – and despite the increasingly commonplace presence of tattoos in everyday culture, personal inkings have yet to obtain a blank cheque from employers. In a recent Wales Online article, Katrina Raposo – commercial manager at recruitment firm Acorn – points out: “Tattoos seemed to have become less of an issue for employers and the workplace in recent years, but in reality whether or not they are deemed acceptable depends very much on that particular job and the nature of the organisation where a person works.”
However, it may just be the case that someone with an alternative image is actually packing significant talent. How should leaders – and especially hiring managers – handle these individuals to ensure that their abilities are prized above their looks?
The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “Bias is embedded in any selection process. Extreme cases of where people say, ‘I can’t employ that person because they have tattoos, piercings or a “goth” appearance’ are simply articulating what happens all the time in selection processes at a range of different, and often unconscious, levels. I would say that the customer is really important here – I’m thinking particularly of industries such as passenger airlines, where the physical evidence of what employees look like has a role in itself. For example, it reassures the customer, or it reinforces a brand or image.
“But when it comes to jobs in offices, which are non-customer facing, I would refer to the central pillar of my views on diversity and inclusivity: why deliberately limit or reduce your talent pool for essentially no good reason? It’s a constraint that managers impose upon themselves. If you grasp that one of the benefits of a diverse workforce is enhanced potential for creativity and innovation, then the more different people can be – and the wider the range of diversity – the greater that potential becomes.”
Cooper adds: “Discrimination and prejudice break down in personal relationships. You cease to be the stereotype, and you are seen simply for your own name and qualities. Why would someone who chooses an alternative image not be able to contribute just as well as a more traditional individual? I would urge leaders to take every opportunity to reflect upon, and test, their views on diversity and inclusivity – and boost their potential for innovation through a widening of the talent pool.”
For further thoughts on appreciating diversity, check out these learning resources from the Institute