On hiring marketers with difficult backgrounds & the value of curiosity

Our backgrounds give us a unique perspective. And it’s often a perspective that prevents us from understanding how others may perceive things.

Consider, then, two separate candidates:

Candidate A has been brought up in Surrey, the son of a stockbroker in the City and a Marketing Director, and excelled at private school. Graduated from university with honours and is making his way up the marketing ladder.

Candidate B was brought up in Walsall. His parents separated at an early age, he was brought up by his mother in poverty and earned a scholarship to go to school and then university, where he graduated with honours. He is equally making his way up the marketing ladder.

Now, you may look at Candidate A and think that their background is perfect for your organisation. They’ve been brought up by a Marketer, of all things. You have a history of hiring people from similar backgrounds.

Or you may look at Candidate A and think – what privilege! He doesn’t need our help.

You may look at Candidate B and think that they don’t have the right background for you. Alternatively, you may think that they’re a fighter and that having fought for everything so far, they’ll provide you with entrepreneurial ‘hustle’ (FWIW, this is true and if that’s what the role requires, think about it).

Much depends on your own perception.

Why you should think about a candidate’s background

Look back at our two candidates, A and B. Both have graduated from university and are making their way up the ladder. Both may have exactly the same skills, at least on paper.

But they are not cut from the same cloth. And this perspective, earned from their background, may have an effect on how they approach their work and their relationships with colleagues. It may affect what they do next.

You probably won’t know anything about their background. In fact, after a single interview, you may not even be able to tell them apart. And that’s worth overcoming.

Someone from a difficult background may, as I mentioned above, come with bags of entrepreneurial hustle. They often face down challenges with greater resilience than those who have had an easier background, but they can sometimes come with a bit of conflict, potentially with colleagues and potentially with clients too. They often thrive on some conflict, and view it as important in how they work.

You cannot, however, ask them directly about their upbringing.

But you can ask them about how they earned their perspective on life.

You can ask questions about how they have tackled specific situations both in and out of the workplace, and ask why they reacted in such a way. Turn the interview into a conversation and a candidate’s natural guard may drop. All of a sudden, you find yourself entering more interesting territory, and you’re looking for clues about what drives a candidate’s perspective, rather than what that perspective is.

How to overcome unconscious bias about a candidate’s background

As I said, our backgrounds give us a certain perspective, and this may skew what you think about your candidates.

You may lean towards a candidate who has the same background as you, and you may not understand why a candidate perceives the world in a certain way if they come from a different background.

In a global quest for the most talented candidates, you may find your top candidate hails from East Africa, for instance. But it’s hard to understand their perspective if you’ve never been there.

If you are yourself from a difficult background, how easy do you find it to understand how someone of privilege thinks? Just because they’re from a privileged background, don’t think they believe life hands them things on a silver platter.

For me, this underlines the most necessary trait required for any talent searcher or interviewer – curiosity. If you are aware of your own background, be it privileged or otherwise – and you are curious about the backgrounds of others, then you will have an easier time trying to understand their perspective.

It helps to read biographies. It helps to read fiction from regions beyond your own. It helps to have a varied Netflix watchlist. It helps to travel.

It helps to have an insatiable curiosity for different viewpoints, and to consider your own – favourable or otherwise – as a position of privilege. Because then you open yourself up to potentially seeing the world through their eyes and therefore understand how they perceive the workplace, and how they may react in different situations.

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