Why should people have to change their personalities at work?

I was once asked in a previous job to sit in with a senior manager on an interview for an entry-level position with the company.  

The candidate had relatively impressive experience for someone entering the industry, good communication skills and clear enthusiasm for the role. Had I had a score sheet, I would have written down a seven or eight out of 10 

But as the lift closed and whisked the hopeful candidate away, my manager turned to me and said, “I don’t think she’ll fit in.” Taken aback, I asked what about her interview had left that impression. 

“We need someone who understands our sense of humour,” said the manager. That was the end of the discussion; looking back, I wish I had taken the opportunity to say I hadn’t realised we aspired to a corporate standard of wit.  

The memory resurfaced yesterday as a number of stellar speakers gave their views at the Insider Progress event. Katherine Conway, head of diversity and inclusion and community affairs at Aon, advised that we drop the nebulous idea of “fitting in” as a soft requirement when hiring. For one thing, it is undefinable and that is tricky in a professional setting we are talking about people interacting in a workplace, not a cocktail party.  

For another, it can be a smoke-screen for bias. I could not possibly prove that the comments of the white, male manager about the young, minority ethnic, female interviewee that day years ago were motivated by any kind of racist, sexist or ageist bias.  

But because of the lack of due process – a diverse interview panel, comprising the same interviewers for each candidate; a written document scoring candidates against core competencies – neither could he have disproved it.  

Surely it would have been better to avoid the idea of “fitting in” altogether and focus on the candidate’s professional merits – particularly as meritocracy is often used as a defence against complaints of a lack of diversity?  

Another delegate yesterday told me that in every performance review they had had so far at the carrier where they worked, their “manner” had been criticised and they had been told to act “more like so-and-so”. Their underwriting performance went unmentioned. “Why should people have to change their personalities at work?” they posited. Why indeed? 

And this breaking of the mould isn’t just a fluffy HR exercise. Anna Sweeney, director of insurance supervision at the Prudential Regulation Authority, said a lack of diversity in insurance hampers good, well-rounded decision-making. Put simply, people who are very similar have similar patterns of thinking. 

Hiring diverse workforces is not simply about providing BAME or LGBT role models; it’s about putting enough intellectual diversity in a room to avoid the type of groupthink that partially created the financial crisis. In a risk-based business like insurance, being able to see potential problems from every angle is surely paramount.  

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