The Man in the Mirror: What HR Can Learn from American Idol

Whenever I do any kind of presentation on workplace diversity issues, I always warn my audience that they will hear about reality television.

While I halfway say it as a joke to warm up any tensions about what some worry will be a prickly conversation, I’m half serious because reality television, like pop culture generally, has always been a great index for the changing mores of society. And any way you slice it, those mores always creep into workplace relationships and interactions, even in ways that often aren’t direct or conscious.

Today’s reality TV is no different from the days of people gossiping about the Rat Pack or taking its cues on what is "in" or "out" from Life Magazine.

How do reality TV examples relate to workplace diversity issues, you ask? Well, diversity is all about how each set of eyes looks out on the world – not literally, but figuratively. My working definition of diversity is seeing the difference, distinctions and dividing lines of others with a clear vision, but a soft gaze. In a nutshell, that means being able to discern how people are different— whether from their physical differences, the distinctions you find out about or the life choices people make— with an open mind, but not a hardened stance.

As a former employment attorney, I know that many times, it’s the casual comments said in passing that get featured in discrimination lawsuits. It’s not necessarily the things said in official conferences or one-on-one meetings, but off-the cuff comments and observations at company social events, at the water cooler, coffee pot or as co-workers are walking to their cars. Comments seemingly about nothing can reveal much to the listener, even if the revelations are just assumptions that color how people see the people they work with.

In other words, when people let their guards down about topics that seem unimportant, comments (and their supporting worldviews) come out unfiltered.

Take those unguarded moments and apply them to the message boards of online news sites, or comments you may come across on Facebook or other social media sites, and you get a really unfiltered view of how people really see differences.

The most recent example that struck me involves the iconic "American Idol," where one of the young singers made comments before he sang "Man in the Mirror" about how if he made it in the bottom three for singing that night, it wouldn’t be because he didn’t sing the song well but because America wasn’t ready to face the man in the mirror.

Now, as ill-considered as his comments may have been, what the young singer meant is less than clear. However, what is clear is that he didn’t mention, nor had he ever mentioned before, any references related to race, sexual orientation, weight or religion. Yet, the more than 300 comments on the website of the magazine Entertainment Weekly, repeatedly referred to the singer in terms of his race (African-American), sexual orientation (assumed to be gay because of effeminate mannerisms), weight (overweight) and religion (assumed to be Christian because of comments relating to his moral code).

Some of the comments were stated to be from people of color or gay, but most of them were people who made clear they were in the majority in some respect and that they didn’t appreciate the arrogance of the contestant based on his actual and perceived membership in various groups. Not all the comments that mentioned his various differences were negative – many people felt the need to state that they couldn’t be bigots because they voted in the past for black and/or gay contestants

What all the comments had in common, whether negative or positive, as it relates to the contestant (and most were decidedly and overtly negative) is that people felt a need to make the irrelevant relevant.

Dealing almost exclusively with workplace diversity issues, all I could think as I read this and comments accompanying several news stories over the years, was that most of these people work someplace and pack these assumptions, criticisms and stereotypes in their lunch bags, purses, wallets and brief cases. In some cases, these posters are managing or supervising employees. Because while the unemployment rate is much higher than our country ever wants to see, the truth is that most people are working, have worked or will work again.

Therefore, these seemingly innocent, silly comments about pop culture fluff help illustrate how helping people understand differences is one of the most important tasks any manager or worker can take on.

Sure, some would argue that it’s a leap to assume that people posting on websites about TV shows reflect anything significant about what people in the workplace do or how they reason. But it would be a big mistake to miss that how people perceive each other in their free time has an exact correlation to how they will perceive people at work.

Failure to fairly tune out irrelevant factors leads to a lot of misconceptions masquerading as objective evaluations. When you’re too busy interpreting what others say through your own bias, you don’t have the ability to hear what actually comes out of the mouths of others. This alters critical thinking, which is invaluable to every workforce in America.

Therefore, with the high cost of defending workplace discrimination lawsuits and complaints, along with the low productivity that unreported complaints can inspire, it pays— maybe not to watch American Idol or Survivor or Dancing with the Stars—but to listen to what your employees might be saying when they talk about watching them.