Unlikely Allies

I recently interviewed an upwardly-mobile nurse whose ascent was halted when she suddenly became blind. After years of rehabilitation, education, numerous frustrating job interviews, and a couple of job that didn’t move her toward her wish of returning to the health care sector, she suddenly landed her dream job.

“How did you land that job?” I asked.

She talked about hearing of the job through a contact; how the hiring manager seemed unprepared for a blind woman with a service dog to enter her office, and how the interviewer seemed uninterested in her demonstration of the technology she used to read and manipulate text on a computer screen.

“But then the interviewer said that I was the most qualified person for the job that she had interviewed thus far, that she was having trouble filling the position, and that she wanted to hire me.”

“But what about the tech challenges?” the interviewee asked the hiring manager.

That’s not my problem,” her future boss harumphed. “That’s IT’s problem.”

So my interviewee’s new career in healthcare was launched, with more than its share of challenges, surprises, and successes.

She’s still happy with her current job ten years later.

Yesterday, I heard about a respected entomologist who, among other things, had identified a new breed of mosquito. But after suddenly becoming blind, he has not been able to reenter the field of insect study. The high-pitched buzz among his interviewers seemed to be that he couldn’t possibly support other entomologists because he is blind.

“Ultimately,” I thought,  “landing a job in a nontraditional career path comes down to finding that stranger who somehow believes in you and your abilities.”

How can we encourage these unlikely alliances to form?

I thought back to those stranger allies that crossed my path. Michael Pratt, a young conductor who took me on as a percussionist in the orchestra of the college I attended even though I would be unable to see his gestures. Lana Smart, who gave me a bolt of confidence during my first day on my first job after graduate school. Mary Jacksteit, who hired me to support her in promoting dialogues between pro-choice it and pro-life activists even though I was a male with no mediation training. Rochelle Friedlich, who hired me as a consultant after our employer laid me off.

Over the years, I’ve had the chance to ask these supporters what prompted them to take a chance on me. Michael Pratt said that I was the only percussionist who auditioned, and that while he knew that he could import other percussionists from elsewhere, my confident musicianship sold him. Lana Smart told me after becoming my boss that the organization had found it hard to locate the right person, and that while inexperienced, my enthusiasm, independence, and ideas convinced her to hire me. Mary Jacksteit told me that she was having trouble finding the right person, and that my ability to find value on all sides of a controversial issue and willingness to listen without judgment sealed the deal for her. And Rochelle Friedlich told me that she was afraid that the initiative we were shepherding might flounder if my skill set left the building.

In order to transform the sound of hiring people with disabilities and other underrepresented groups from the whiny buzz of a mosquito to a productive hum, we can find ways to encourage “people with significant differences” and hiring managers to meet informally. Encourage children and youth to develop strengths and support them in exploring how these strengths can lead to a career. Take young people to work when you can. Give them a realistic view of the work world, with its challenges and rewards. Find ways to support them to develop the grit to grapple with the inevitable discrimination.

Support hiring managers in sharpening their empathy, curiosity, and listening skills. Encourage them to serve as volunteers in organizations that address needs of groups to which they don’t belong. Help them see that good ideas can come from all quarters. Take inclusion seriously.

And just the right amount of desperation might tip the scales.