Sexy women of HR – post implementation review

Last week I published a post called ‘The sexy women of HR’ and there was a very strong reaction to it. It gave me some insight into how popular upsetting people can be. You can see what it did to my blog stats in the pic below.

Sexy blog reaction

The reaction fell into a few camps, so working out whether it was a good idea is quite tough…Some of the feedback was

  • That’s offensive
  • That’s brilliant
  • It’s so offensive I haven’t even read it
  • I’m glad you’ve done that – it’s honest and we need to talk about it more
  • I didn’t expect that of you
  • That’s why I read your blogs
  • I’d like to talk to you more about it
  • You aren’t worth talking to
  • That’s opening up the issue
  • That’s confusing the issue

It might all be fair.

I thought I’d explain some of the thinking behind it – I’m not justifying it – I’m running through the thinking and context

i) it wasn’t for blog hits. Neil Morrison immediately tweeted to say it was for traffic. It really wasn’t, he just understands this stuff better than I do and understood it would get traffic – I’m actually pretty new to blogging.

I hadn’t anticipated the reaction and, whilst I do look at my blog figures, I mentally discount both this post and one other post (when Dan Pink retweeted a blog) as it hasn’t got much to do with my day to day blogging. I write what I like, I look at the figures to see what interested others, I don’t really write to interest others – which is why plenty of my blogs disappear without a trace.

ii) I’d read Richard Westney’s blog on CEO’s prefer blondes and it struck me that I don’t think middle aged men hire a disproportionate amount of attractive women as they are avoiding challenge. I think they do it, simply, as they are attracted to the idea of being surrounded by attractive people. It might be the case that CEO’s don’t take HR seriously, but what I think we are seeing is not CEO’s searching out compliant hires – but just them taking the opportunity to hire attractive people. So I wanted to write something to bring that to life. It’s applying Occam’s Razor – why do attractive people get hired more often? Because they are attractive.

I’d also heard three stories in recent weeks about women being treated shamefully in office environments – and all three stories had been recounted to me as if that was ‘just the way of the world’. That shocked me, so I wanted to do something in this space that would get people talking.

iii) There is something about mindset and environment. What people won’t realise is that I’d just finished writing this blog for theHRDIRECTOR when I started the ‘sexy women’ post. I was in my dressing gown and typing away, sipping a cup of tea. This was not a highly planned campaign – it was a few things coming together. I blog – I don’t write treatise. The average one takes me between 20-30 minutes. They are pieces of thought – not whole system theories.

One of the things I’d covered in theHRDIRECTOR blog is how you can create change by giving people a worst case scenario – selling it in a serious fashion – and watch how they react and pulse away from it. This is the situation I recount between a manager and I a few years ago.

Manager: I’m really at the end of my tether with these two

Me: Me too, I’m bored of you talking to me about them to be honest, they just keep coming up. I’ll just ask someone from my team to pop down and dismiss them tomorrow

Manager: What? Slow down, I don’t want that to happen…

Me: Why not? You are always grumbling about them. I’m here to help.

Manager: They just have a couple of problems, I wouldn’t want to lose them. In fact I couldn’t cope with losing them both. With a bit more support and guidance they could both be ok in a few months.

Me: I’m just curious…whose job is providing that support and guidance?

Manager: I see what you did there [grins]

Me: I’ll see you in a couple of months… [walk off, grinning and a little bit smug]

There is power in using a worst case scenario to illustrate consequences of lazy thinking

I combined the desire to respond to Richard’s piece with the idea of doing something that was a completely exaggerated position to cause people to react. It never occurred to me, naively, that people would believe that was my actual position – or indeed a valid one. It was a caricature, but one that apparently hit slightly too close to the mark for some.

So…what do I actually think

  • there is still far too much sexism in the workplace – and acceptance of it. The situation is probably improving – but not fast enough. It’s one of a slew of problems that feel they should be trapped in the 80’s and aren’t
  • people feel uncomfortable talking about sex and the workplace. The whole subject falls into a place where lots of people are in denial. I exaggerated for effect in my piece, but a few people didn’t seem to want to acknowledge that attraction could play any part in decision making. That is dangerous in itself. Just because something is unpalatable doesn’t mean we shouldn’t discuss it – quite the opposite. We should confront it.
  • we should get better at understanding bias and creating controls to mitigate it. Whether this is thinking harder about diversity of people involved in selection – or reflecting more detail about the process – we shouldn’t create environments where unthinking bias is likely to come into play. Or if it is always likely to come into play we need to double our understanding on what the consequence of that will be.
  • we’ve all seen the attractive PR and Marketing Teams trotted out at events. If you go to a sporting event you still get cheerleaders… at a family event. We need to have a think about some of the ethics of activity like this and what not challenging that activity means. My daughter is 4 – I’d like to think that wearing short skirts and make up and dancing about for a predominantly drunk, male, middle aged crowd at sporting events won’t be an aspiration for her when she is older. It’s an anachronism that we hardly notice.
  • we need to balance our focus on gender with awareness of the fact that the species keeps going primarily because attractiveness matters. Romances start in the office – people treat each other differently because of that. Did we ever think they didn’t? Workplaces aren’t sterile – but there are counterproductive trends that we need to be aware of. We are intelligent and civilised animals. There is an inherent confusion in what that means for us in certain situations. Ignoring it doesn’t help, indulging it doesn’t help either.

It’s complex. I wrote to draw out some of that complexity of thinking in others. I’m glad with the end result in terms of debate – although I’m not sure if I’d do it again. Some people think I’d achieved my goal, some people didn’t.

Life is complex. I wrote this blog about disability about three days before. Give it a read.

Without the shock value in there only a fraction of people clicked through to read that one.

It’s another issue I care deeply about – maybe it deserved me saying something offensive about it instead to give it more prominence. Maybe the most moral thing to do is write abhorrent material to stimulate debate and take the reputational hit myself. I don’t know. I’m thinking on it. It’s complex.

6 thoughts on “Sexy women of HR – post implementation review

  1. Fascinating the way us human beings react to stuff. It’s like the news – what would happen if the news that got reported was all positive, good news stories presented in a balanced and fair manner? Would people still watch/read/listen?

    I think the responses to your post were an exaggerated version of what happens with every piece of writing in that you can’t please all the people all the time. Which is why I’m with you on the ‘blog for yourself’ approach. If not you could drive yourself crazy second-guessing what other people want from you.

    But I suppose what it does highlight is that if we want change to happen we need to generate eMOTION in people – the question each time is ‘what’s the most effective way to do that’ and ‘what emotion do we want to create’? – painting the worst case scenario is definitely one option.


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