“I’m not a journalist Marcus. I’m not a news and current affairs type person”. That was the response of one producer six years ago when I asked her to come to work with me on “Undercover Supermarkets” for the BBC1 series Whistleblower.
I was shocked. She had previously worked on Watchdog and two primetime BBC1 documentary-soap series for me, and I knew she had the ability. So I went through the list of skills I needed for a current affairs producer:
- Can you spot a good story?
- Can you persuade difficult contributors to talk to you?
- Are you meticulous about the facts of a story?
- Are you good at people finding?
- Do you understand how narratives work?
I told her: If you can answer “yes” to all those questions, I can teach you the rest.
She could. So she took the job and eventually made one of the highest rating and best quality programmes in the Whistleblower series.
But I found it disconcerting that she didn’t think she was a journalist. When I pushed her, I realised that it wasn’t the programme making skills that she thought she lacked – but some ill-defined quality that she felt she was missing. So she ruled herself out.
Employers also rule applicants out. I’ve seen it time and time again, when people in positions of power feel that the applicant is not “a (fill-in-the-blank) type person”.
The typical outcome if the person applies for the job is that even if they fit all the criteria, they don’t have one mysterious enigmatic hard-to-pin-down skill.
There are a lot of variations on this theme:
“The person is great but they aren’t really a BBC1 type person.”
“The programmes they’ve made are wonderful but they just aren’t a Channel 4 type person.”
“Do you really think they are a music and arts type person?”
“They just don’t seem like a journalist type to me.”
Or the catchall:
“They just don’t seem right”.
Judging by the people that are employed however, the people who are the amorphous “right type of person” nearly always tend to come from non-diverse backgrounds. Ill defined-touchy-feely qualities never seem to work in the interests of black, Asian, disabled or working class people.
It’s crucial that we challenge employers of inadvertent prejudice when they use these ill-defined criteria to judge an applicant’s suitability. Some of my best Producers, Assistant Producers and Researchers have not only come from diverse backgrounds but they also have incredibly diverse CVs. Employers need to make sure they judge people by the skills that they have and their willingness to learn new skills - not whether they are a certain “type of person”.
But it’s also – if not more – crucial that we challenge our own prejudices. Too many of us buy into the idea that we are not the “right kind of person”. We rule ourselves out of jobs because we do not think we can fulfil criteria that don’t even objectively exist. It’s time to let go of the mystique, and start making those applications.