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September 22, 2014

What Does Talent Look Like?

September 22, 2014

People spend a lot of time at work. Outside of breathing, there isn’t much that American adults do more. By default, most of our ongoing interpersonal relationships are with co-workers. Such intimate and extended interactions are an opportunity to display our individual personalities and express our personal values – an ongoing, intergenerational cultural exchange that ideally should create an informed, creative workplace that leverages each individual's talents into organizational greatness. 

Are You Attracting or Turning Away Talent?

And yet, there are significant barriers to such expression in many workplaces. Perhaps the most seemingly innocuous, yet unrelentingly ignorant, of these socio-cultural barriers are professional expectations about appearance and behavior, including the dreadful and archaic dress code. For years, talented, young, creative people have struggled to be taken seriously during hiring and promotion processes in established organizations, based at least in part on how they look and act. Often, this lack of opportunity stems from latent prejudices among more conservative or traditional executives and HR professionals based on dated notions of professionalism. 

Here is the thing. These “weird,” “odd” and “strange” people might just be some of the most creative, innovative game-changers in the workforce. If we follow the philosophy that creativity and ingenuity are often expressed outwardly, then employers should not only be entertaining the idea of hiring people who break social and professional norms, they should be seeking them out

Making Room for Innovation

Let’s be honest, small businesses are often running laps around larger organizations when it comes to innovating and pioneering new ideas. This edge comes from a lack of bureaucracy and more nimble systems, which can lead to more creative solutions. There is assumed to be a higher degree of risk tolerance among smaller organizations — those who don't have shareholders or boards of directors. While these assumptions might be true, they probably don’t tell the whole story.

What if the lack of bureaucracy and increased risk tolerance leads to hiring and retention practices that aren't based on outdated perceptions of professionalism? What if these small companies and organizations are more innovative because they go out their way to hire and promote creative, ingenious employees — those who often fail to hide their creativity in their manners of dress or quirky behaviors?

Does conformity of appearance equate to a greater sense of responsibility? Do slacks and a button-down shirt increase productivity? Can removing piercings and covering tattoos make someone work harder? These seem to be the underlying assumptions among many giant employers. Large nonprofits, corporations and government agencies are missing the boat when it comes to hiring and rewarding the best talent, in large part because they are saddled with antiquated notions of a “good employee.”

Embracing Difference

The employee experience in an antiquated organization, for those that are willing to “dumb themselves down” long enough to get hired, can squelch creativity. These employees learn that there is a game that must be played in order to move up in the ranks, and that game requires a certain uniform. Those with straight laces tend to succeed in such a game, often to the detriment of the organization, which misses out on some of the best ideas from some of the most innovative thinkers and doers. 

Instead, these organizations should be embracing employees who look and act differently — those who dare to experiment — for these are the people who have been encouraged throughout their lives to be creative, expressive and extraordinary. They’ve pioneered and innovated everywhere they’ve been, and those are the characteristics they can bring to any organization that won’t crush them first.

After spending years working in government and within a major university, I’ve seen some of the most talented and passionate young employees wash out. Often they were outcasts soon after being hired. Sometimes they adapted. Rarely did they thrive. They never managed to have a lasting impact on the organization. Their intrinsic creativity was never embraced by their employers, and their organizations never changed for the better because of them. 

Government agencies and other large employers must examine their HR practices and, more importantly, their prejudices, if they intend to attract the brightest and most innovative talent. If you are willing to accept their untraditional hair style, irregular choices in clothing, or a little body art, there is a passionate and creative generation of hopefuls out there, ready to leave a mark in every sector of our economy.

Cover image via Flickr.

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