Good Racists

Readers of this blog know two things:  First, the purpose of the title is to get people to read the article and, more likely than not, if the title is provocative, any connection between it and the actual contents of the posting is purely coincidental.  Not in this case.

But first, I must thank Miguel in Madrid for having suggested the topic of “culture.”

Good racists are racists who are proud of their racism.  They literally wear it on their sleeves.  We can spot them and avoid them.  It’s the racists who hide behind political correctness or feigned caring who are the real threat.

Racism – and here’s the link to the topic – is not a problem of education, it’s a problem of culture.  Our culture comes from how we are raised.  In the animal kingdom, puppies and kittens raised together don’t know that they are supposed to be natural enemies.  So when they mature, those puppies, now dogs, don’t attack cats and the kittens, as cats, don’t run away when they see a dog.

The same is true in the human kingdom.  Put children of different races together from birth, cut them off from the world-at-large, and they will be shocked to discover that they are supposed to believe that their differences are in some way negatives.

While our differences are not negatives, they are real.  One (for a very short time) prospective client told me that she did not want me to submit any candidates who were “minorities” because “they would not fit in here.”  That’s racism of the worst kind.  No question about it.  Nothing to discuss.  Nothing to debate.

However, making culture an issue in the hiring process is not racism.  Culture is something that has interested me for some time.  I even have been published on the subject.

I have conducted two searches in what is usually referred to in the US as “the deep South,” but as I like to refer to simply as “the Confederacy.”  In both cases the clients were the nicest people you would ever want to meet.  In both cases, after obtaining the contracts to conduct the searches, I had a 20 minute conversation with the HR directors.  For the first minute or so we discussed the normal pleasantries.  The second and third minutes were devoted to any questions I had about the job descriptions.  The fourth and fifth minutes were spent on reviewing the job qualifications.  The remaining 15 minutes consisted of their telling me about their culture, both institutional and geographical.

This wasn’t the above mentioned bigot’s “they won’t be comfortable here.”  Far from it.  They didn’t care who the candidates were.  What they cared about was their actually fitting in.  For example, “Someone from New York may not get it.  In New York everything is fast.  If you don’t get an answer within a few minutes, not to mention by the end of the day, you get upset.  Here, it’s a slower pace.”  “Look.   We don’t were suits and ties to work.  The woman don’t wear business suits.  We’re laid back.  If you are the old IBM-type, blue suit, white shirt, red tie, you won’t last long.”

I could never work in the South.  I want the answer right away and I wear a suit and tie almost every day.  It’s who I am.  It’s my uniform.  It makes me comfortable.

On the other hand, I would love to bring a little of the Confederacy to the Union.  People are polite.  They actually say “please” and “thank you.”  This past Sunday I gave a presentation at The Learning Annex.  I arrived in Manhattan early and had enough time to go to my office to pick up some business cards.  I had remembered to bring pens with me (with my contact information on them) but I didn’t think I had enough cards.  When I arrived at the building the alarm in the fire box (not the fire alarm itself) was ringing and the bell in one of the elevators was going off.  I could not open the elevator door and no one responded when I knocked on the door and yelled.  Of course, that did not mean anything.  So I called the Fire Department.  It only took them a few minutes to arrive, and the Police a few minutes after them.  They turned off the alarms and pried open the elevator door.  (No one was inside.)  I asked if I could go or if they needed me to sign anything.  They told me I could leave.  As I was walking to the hotel to give my talk, it dawned on me that no one hand thanked me.  Just as quickly as the thought entered my mind I forgot about it, until now.

Here’s some racism for you.  Maybe common politeness is important to me because I grew up in Canada.  Maybe my fellow Americans just don’t get it.  And getting it is what is important.  An employer has to be confident that a new hire, in addition to being able to do the job, is going to fit into the corporate culture.  A workplace is a living, breathing social organism.  It moves in a certain way.  It reacts in a certain way.   Employers do not want to go through all the cost and trouble of hiring someone just to have them leave because they feel uncomfortable with the way things are accomplished.

I once left a job because I was very uncomfortable with the corporate culture.  Education was not seen as important because, apparently, the executive director never graduated high school.  The assistant executive director told me, with pride, that he had left medical school to become a race car driver.  When mail was delivered it would only be distributed after it had been opened by one of them.  (The exceptions were bills and my mail.  I made it clear that when they were on vacation I needed to get my mail just in case it dealt with a grant request that required an immediate response.)  The executive was very political – on the verge of inappropriate.  And, to put it kindly, they did not always check their facts before they spoke.  I left, not because of religion or race  or anything else of that ilk, but because I just was not comfortable with the way they operated.  It wasn’t racism, it was culture.  (And it was also a felony.  A few years later they plead guilty to grand larceny.  Don’t ask!)

So, to answer Miguel’s question, How do you deal with “culture” as a reason for not getting a job?  First, you’ll never know it.  No one in their right mind is going to tell a candidate that they have been rejected because the boss does not think they will fit in to the corporate culture.  Even if totally justified, it’s an invitation to a law suit.  Second, confront it up front.  I always raise culture in an interview.  “I’ve worked with colleagues from all races, religions and cultures.  I’m comfortable in that environment.”  Or, “I want to make something clear.  I believe I will have a very small learning curve when it comes to what I have to do if you hire me.  However, I always recognize that you have a corporate culture and I have to learn how to do things your way.  You are not hiring me to do things my way only to get for you the results I have gotten for others.  And I can assure you that I learned my lesson years ago, you have to do things the company way or it won’t work.”