One of the most frustrating and unfair things we encounter in our lives is being judged according to stereotypes rather than on our own merit or personality. But when we’re being honest, we might acknowledge that we, too, sometimes use stereotypes to make snap judgments about others.
Sometimes this is relatively harmless, such as when we assume that a person with a good physique is athletic, or that someone without that physique isn’t. A quick demonstration by either individual would set the record straight.
But what about the stereotypes that threaten to hold us back in our careers or keep us from getting jobs we want? We have laws to protect against this, but we still know that it occurs: People do find themselves barred from employment based on age, gender, race, disability or other criteria that is not supposed to be part of the hiring decision.
The solution isn’t simple. If making a law was all that we needed, the problem would have been solved. Nor does it seem to hinge on educating employers, although that’s always a good thing to do.
Since my work brings me in contact with the job seekers in this equation, I think it’s worth asking how individuals can mitigate the effects of stereotypes in their own career paths.
A logical first step is to review the situation to see if discrimination is actually happening. To be honest, in most cases where my candidate believes they’re being discriminated against, I find that there are too many other factors present to make that diagnosis.
For example, I talk frequently with job seekers in their 50s and 60s who believe they are being discriminated against by age. But as the conversation progresses, I’ll learn that they’ve contacted very few employers, or that their paperwork was well-strategized so the employer couldn’t yet have learned their age. In short, the candidate hasn’t offered employers the chance to discriminate — so if they’re not getting interviews or offers, a poor search process is more likely to blame.
That’s not to say that discrimination doesn’t happen — just that it might not occur as often as a job seeker feels like it does.
Another step in the process of managing stereotypes is to break them down into smaller units to make problem-solving easier. For example, I’ve known some employers to shy away from younger workers, telling me off the record that they need someone with good judgment or absolute reliability.
But what about the young candidate who possesses those desired qualities? He or she needs to craft a strategy that highlights both characteristics. The resume would emphasize those concepts, interview answers would provide concrete examples, and references would be asked to reinforce those points when contacted by managers.
Which brings us to another strategy for confronting or managing stereotypes while seeking work: Enlist others to speak on your behalf. There’s nothing like the word of a referral to build an employer’s trust in a candidate.
Another, more disruptive option is to seek work in areas where you are in the majority and stereotypes are less likely to prevail. In this scenario, young workers looking to break into management might have more luck in “young” settings such as fast food and skateboard shops.
Relocation is another solution that workers have used to mitigate discrimination, but not always in predictable patterns. While our nation’s history describes migrations by African-Americans seeking opportunities in Northern cities, I now encounter individuals weighing a move back to cities where they will feel less like a minority. It’s a conversation I used to have frequently with my gay and lesbian clients as well.
These aren’t easy conversations to have, and the decisions they engender can be even harder. That’s why I always want to start with the least extreme problem-solving measures first. If we don’t know that discrimination is happening, or it seems mild enough to correct by making a stronger case for one’s skills, I’ll always push for an enhanced job search process. It’s surprising how often that makes the difference.
Amy Lindgren owns Prototype Career Service, a career consulting firm in St. Paul, Minn. She can be reached at email@example.com or at 626 Armstrong Ave., St. Paul, MN 55102.