Caroline Gourlay is an independent business psychologist based in Bath who writes about the application of psychology in the workplace, including its risks and limitations. She is interested in trends in psychological research as well as the nitty-gritty practicalities of using psychology at work. Caroline has worked with large corporations and in the public sector, but her real interest is in medium-sized, owner-managed businesses, including family business. She helps organisations to select the right people to fit their organisation and coaches executives to enable them to fulfil their potential.

A few months ago I was involved a selection process for a senior role in a medium-sized company, providing in-depth psychological profiles of three candidates, two external and one internal. At the end, the internal assessment panel and I had a ‘wash-up’ discussion to compare notes on our assessments of the candidates. We had happily discussed the two external candidates and were about to move on to the internal guy when the HR Manager stopped us, saying “I feel like we’re rooting around in his underwear drawer”.

This was her colleague, someone she knew well, and she felt really uncomfortable that she was about to find out some quite personal things about him – his intellectual capability, his level of emotional stability, what he worries about, the ‘shadow side’ of his personality and so on. The underwear drawer was a powerful analogy and two things struck me about it.

Firstly, all candidates deserve to be treated like internal candidates. It’s not that there was anything inappropriate in our discussions of the external candidates but there was a subtle difference in the tone and sensitivity when discussing the internal guy. When being objective, it’s all too easy to objectify and that’s easier when you don’t know the person. The fact that there is a living, breathing person with feelings at the heart of the assessment is an obvious, but nonetheless useful, thing to remind ourselves of.

The second thing that struck me was a question.  As HR people or line managers, what do you do with that information? I’m not talking about confidentiality. I take it as read that professional people handle sensitive information appropriately. I mean, how does it affect your perception of, and feelings about, that person? What if you find out that your colleague is emotionally unstable, has passive aggressive tendencies or might be a ‘corporate psychopath’? You can’t ‘unknow’ this stuff.

Of course this doesn’t just apply to things that come out of an assessment process. If someone confides in you that they have a mental health issue or a gambling problem, it’s likely to change your perception of them in some way. But at least they chose to tell you that. In an assessment situation, you find out things about them that they may not even have known themselves.

I’m an external consultant, so this is never an issue for me in the way it is for people who work inside organisations. I’m genuinely curious about how internal HR people handle sensitive information about colleagues. Do you maintain some kind of mental boundary so that it influences your judgement about the person when it’s relevant but not when it isn’t? If so, what kind of superhuman are you, because that sounds almost impossible. Or is this one of those things that no one really thinks about and that, perhaps, warrants further discussion?