A while ago I recorded some webinars for a training company, for their YouTube page. When they posted the videos, they told me that they were unable to use my name on the clips, because YouTube automatically puts related video clips on the same page. Why was this a problem? Well, mainly because the majority of the related clips that came up involved me wearing pointy fangs and lots of black. They didn’t really want to be associated with a gothic vampire HR expert. Perhaps understandable, despite the fact that these clips were from TV programmes I’d appeared in, and not really indicative of what I look like on a daily basis. But should it really matter?
In my 20s and 30s, I was very much the stereotypical Goth, with a particular interest in the vampire genre. Not as weird as it sounds actually – in fact it was very civilised. I was even Membership Secretary to the London Vampyre Group for a while, and a regular writer for the Chronicles glossy mag for vamp enthusiasts. We got a lot of media enquiries and often provided people for modelling and film/TV work, either as extras, or to be featured in documentaries, interviews etc. – hence many of my claims to fame on YouTube! We had formal committee meetings and organised events, holidays and cultural trips for people interested in vampire history, folklore, literature, films etc. – and no, no-one was into anything icky involving blood (ew). It would have looked great on my CV – except for that word ‘vampire’. (I just referred to it as an ‘active social group’).
Obviously I didn’t swan around in fangs and floaty black frocks every day – too high maintenance, so just for special occasions. But I did have a Morticia-esque hairdo, and wore mostly black, even at the office where I was HR Manager for 6 years. When I started that job I didn’t let on my extra-curricular activities straight away (“What did I do at the weekend? Oh, just went to Ikea, did the garden… didn’t go to any cemetery open days or masked costume balls wearing a Victorian mourning gown at all, honest”) Instead it was a drip-feed approach, gradually letting on what my interests were. I wanted people to be focussed on what a great job I was doing, and also to get to know me, rather than thinking I was some weird goth type!
Within a few months, the plain black suits were replaced by somewhat more flamboyant (but still smart) black suits and shirts in satin, velvet and lace, and I was a lot more open about what I got up to outside of work. By then though, it didn’t matter, because everyone knew me and knew my work, so they knew that not only was I perfectly capable of doing a good job, but also that I was a nice normal person who did not sacrifice goats in her back garden. I also made a point of looking as ‘normal’ as possible for certain events, such as interviews (people are nervous enough at a job interview without thinking the interviewer is going to bite them in the jugular).
By the end of my time there, the company was as alternative-friendly as you could get. From recruiting casual temp staff from a pool of Goths, rockers, Pagans and other non-mainstream types (who often struggled to get jobs elsewhere despite great qualifications, skills and intelligence), many had successfully applied for internal vacancies, and become valued members of the call centre, IT department etc. Admittedly not many client-facing roles, but they were all extremely capable.
When I left to become a freelance consultant though, I knew that my image had to change. When you meet a new client, or are at a networking event, or delivering a seminar, you have to come across as professional and credible straight away. There’s no luxury of time to let them get to know you and your work before casually mentioning that you’re a fan of horror novels and fascinated by burial customs in different parts of the world. So the clothes changed (I rediscovered colour), the handbags changed (no more coffin-shaped backpacks), the hairdo changed (several inches lopped off and back to brunette).
At first it was a bit of a challenge for me – I still pine a bit when I meet up with friends who manage to maintain their fabulous Goth style while also maintaining a proper job. But then again, my social circle is very varied and a goth vampire would look quite out of place in a poncy wine bar sharing a bottle of Pinot with colourful designer-clad sophisticates.
Anyway, my point is this. We often judge a book by its cover, or make assumptions about people’s capability based on their personal interests, tastes, tattoos or beliefs. While you may not share any of those things, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have the IQ of a donut or the social skills of a houseplant (or vice versa). They may in fact be the best person for the job – and probably perfectly willing to dress down for the office if asked nicely! But there is no legislation against discriminating against someone on the basis of their hobbies or dress sense, so this sort of prejudice still takes place.
Many companies do background checks now on potential new recruits, through the powers of Facebook, Myspace etc. This is where you could find pictures of your smart, suited and booted candidate displaying an array of tattoos, piercings, spikey rainbow-coloured hairdos or fake fangs, or find that they’re affiliated to a coven of witches. But please don’t be put off! They’re still the qualified, experienced, capable, friendly people you need on your team. The same goes if you check out an HR consultant and discover various photos or film footage of her looking like Lily Munster… just don’t ask what she got up to at the weekend…