Irenicon is 30 years old this year. As one of the founders, it is a good time to look back and think, how have things changed. One thing that hasn’t changed much is how ‘different’ you can afford to be at work. As a woman founding a company 30 years ago, my female co-director gave me a wonderful piece of advice “You can wear an unusually cut suit in a conservative colour, or an unusual colour in a conservative cut” She told me that while people were intrigued by people who are a little bit different, they reject people who are completely different. Having changed my wardrobe on her advice, it turned out to be true. Being a bit different makes you memorable. Being totally different makes you threatening and hard to understand. When I started out, Personnel Directors (there was no such thing as HR then) were mostly men, and Personnel Managers were mostly women. Being a young woman trying to work in the ‘male’ area of employee relations was different enough. There was no room for interesting outfits, unusual opinions or anything else. The world has moved on. I am no longer young and there is nothing remarkable about senior women in HR. However the ‘difference’ or ‘diversity’ issue (as we call it these days) has not gone away.
- Working parents have different needs to non-parents
- People of different religions and ethnicities and colour can appear different at work
- Lesbian/gay managers may prefer to remain ‘in the closet’ at work for fear it will affect their career
- Trans-gender people are only really beginning to make open progress in the workplace
All these groups can suffer at work from being different. This difference can be unmistakable, such as with colour, or something that can be disguised, such as with sexual orientation or religion. Any difference can have an effect on career progression, since it starts us off with something that may be regarded as ‘an unusually cut suit’. Some people progress further than others in the workplace by adopting a ‘conservative colour’ — that is to say by conforming with group norms in every other respect. I suspect that individuals who follow the cut/colour rule are less likely to feel discriminated against than individuals who do not. Some groups or individuals can’t or won’t do that, and this affects whether they are ‘preferred’ for advancement. It takes a bold boss to promote against the grain of the organisation’s historic culture or values, and an “unconventional suit in an unconventional colour” is the highest risk of all. For all our talk of diversity, the temptation is to want a woman who acts like a man, or a token person who ticks the ‘diversity’ boxes but really acts and thinks like everyone else in the organisation. Some people long for the days when we can all stand out in our unique and magical splendour and wear a coat of many colours (or a grey one if that is what we want to do). Until then, we may need to wear the regulation jeans, smart suit, tracksuits or whatever the ‘conventional suit’ is in our workplace. People who want to advance in the workplace still need to tailor their suit or their colours to maximise their position. Annabel Kaye is Managing Director of Irenicon Ltd, a specialist employment law consultancy. Tel: 08452 303050 Fax: 08452 303060 Website : www.irenicon.co.uk. You can follow Annabel on twitter – http://twitter.com/AnnabelKaye