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What Works: A Face-to-Face Encounter with Differences

July 7, 2002
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In 1991, I left the world of "working for someone else" to start my ownbusiness. The timing seemed right -- I had just written two business books, andsolid experience added weight to my Duke University MBA. There was just oneproblem. Even though I was 28, I looked like Opie, the wholesome little boy fromTV’s Mayberry.

See that tiny picture of me? How old do you think I look? Most people peg meat 32. Some put me in my twenties. Bartenders are convinced I’m 12. Inreality, I’m a year away from the big 4-0.

Countless people, most of whom are members of AARP, tell me I’ll begrateful for my youthful appearance later in life. "Later in life" isgetting closer every day, and I’m starting to understand what they mean. TheOpie look ain’t all that bad.

But 11 years ago, it was hell. During visits with sales prospects, I keptgetting the same questions: "When did you graduate?" "How long have youbeen doing this?" "Are you related to Opie?" People stopped just short ofasking for my birth certificate.

So I decided to approach the problem head-on -- by retiring my electricrazor. That’s right, with the hope of looking older and more mature, I electedto join the ranks of the 10 percent of American males who have facial hair.

For the next three weeks, I looked like Opie in that lost episode where hespills hair-growing formula on his chin. Whenever I looked in the mirror, whichwas about 5,372 times a day, I saw an eighth-grader with blotchy hair patches onhis face. Be patient, I counseled myself. Sure enough, after a few more weeks,the beard filled out and I looked as old as... a college freshman.

New sales also sprouted. I added three clients during the next four weeks. Noone asked my age.

Then I paid a sales visit to someone I’ll call Mr. Smithington. At thetime, the gentleman owned a company that trained salespeople. I found thisrather daunting -- selling to an expert on selling. Thank goodness I had thebeard, right? Wrong.

About two minutes into our meeting, while we were still standing after theobligatory handshake, Mr. Smithington leaned toward me, closing our distance totwo feet. He stopped talking and locked his gaze onto the lower half of my face.I could feel my skin taking on the rosy hue that covered Opie’s face in thatepisode where he’s caught spending the milk money on candy.

The staring went on for an eternity, after which Mr. Smithington eased back,took a deep breath, and declared: "Shave that thing off. You’ll sell more."

My rosy hue deepened to crimson. Shave it off? SHAVE IT OFF? Do you know whatI look like underneath this thing? Do you have any great-grandchildren, Mr.Smithington? Well, that’s what I look like, Mr. Smithington. Would you buyconsulting services from your great-grandchild?

I wanted to say all these things and a few more. Instead I politely thankedhim for his advice, completed the meeting, and spent the next few days ponderingour encounter. I could see the humor in it, but I also saw the serious side.People talk a lot about valuing differences, yet here I was being told to shavemine off.

To vent my frustration in a positive way, I wrote a guest column aboutdiversity for the Cincinnati Enquirer. It told my story of growing the beard andencountering Mr. Smithington. The article ended with this question: What’s itlike to have a prominent difference that can’t be shaved off?

As soon as the article was published, calls and letters poured in. Manypeople shared their own stories, telling me how they’d struggled withdifferences in workplaces that prize sameness and predictability. Nearly all oftheir experiences had far more significance than my little foray into thebearded world.

Among the detractors, one letter-writer had clipped out the article andcovered it with foul language and various unpleasant suggestions about where Ishould go and what I should do. "You look like Satan," he wrote.

Imagine it: I had mutated from Opie to Satan in two months. My skin-deepthoughts about youthful appearance quickly evolved into contemplations about thestruggle for diversity, tolerance, and acceptance.

I decided to keep the beard, not to look older, but to wage my own battle fordifferences.

As the next few years unfolded, I encountered more Mr. Smithingtons. The lasttime a person gave me the shave-it-off advice, I had a quick response: "Withor without the beard, I bring the same knowledge and work ethic."

On a Saturday morning in 1994, I spotted my electric razor at the back of adrawer. I thought about my original reasons for growing the beard, and they nowseemed pretty thin. It seems I had learned about diversity and about the need tobe yourself. So I plugged in the razor, put it to work, and rinsed my beard downthe drain.

End of story, I thought -- until a sales call a month later. The prospect,whom we’ll call Mr. Smithington Jr., leaned toward me and fixed his gaze on myface. "You look awfully young," he said.

"Funny you should mention that," I responded. "Let me tell you about mybeard."

Author’s Note: My March2002 column focused on the bottom-line impact of effortsto improve the workplace. I cited several studies, and I issued a call toreaders for additional evidence, with the idea of featuring this extrainformation in a future article. Good stuff is coming in, but the search isstill under way. If you know of research findings or survey results, or if youhave measures specific to your organization that you’re willing to share,please contact me at Tom@BetterWorkplaceNow.com.

Workforce, June 2002, pp. 24-26 -- Subscribe Now!


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