Berwick @Home - Bookshelf politics and being human

Berwick @Home - Bookshelf politics and being human
Published: 11 May 2020

The COVID pandemic has thrown us a lot of curve balls; the comedy of home haircuts, the emergence of competitive sour-doughing (that one has even spawned a new verb) and the amazing enthusiasm we have all developed for quizzes.  Clearly not everyone will get a full house in lockdown bingo (I for one can’t stand banana bread, far less bake it), however, there is one cliché that seems to be universal and on the rise; judging each other’s bookshelves.  

Bookshelves are indeed a lovely backdrop to a Teams or Zoom meeting and as a recruiter I have seen (and admired) more than my fair share.  They lend their owner an air of intellectual curiosity, open-mindedness, studiousness and focus.  What’s not to like?  

If the internet is anything to go by, woe betide the person who is cavalier about the state of their bookshelves.  Despite literature being one of the most subjective pursuits in existence, we are preternaturally absorbed in what sits behind other people on a Zoom call.  We all want to project the best virtual impression during lock-down and curating what sits behind us seems to be a good way to do that.  But in the pursuit of intellectual posturing, are we losing some of the human perspective?   

The forensic examination of Sarah Vine and Michael Gove’s book-collection brings home the point in question.  The inclusion of two titles which are widely regarded as dubious choices for a senior journalist and her politician husband has created ripples across the internet.  Granted, neither text will ever be on my bed-side table, but the indignant policing of their reading habits has been rabid.

My personal view is that your reading is like your diet; balance is good and too much of one thing is not.  Yet the comments that are being thrown up from this debacle indicate that the shelves we so proudly sit in front are a yard stick to measure someone’s worth.  The emergence of a twitter handle that rates the bookcases of people on television now has nigh-on 50,000 followers.  Admittedly its tongue in cheek content is amusing fodder during such strange times yet it serves to remind how bookcases and their contents seem to be front of mind.

The nosy neighbour in us likes seeing into people’s homes, but we all know that we shouldn’t actually judge each other on what we see. Within recruitment fairness, transparency and sincerity are key to decision making.  Hence colleagues and I are scrupulous about working harder to build rapport with people who we are meeting via a screen.  I can reassure that we will not be judging you on what sits behind you (as long as it is professional), yet we are all placing heavy pressure upon ourselves to present perfection at a time when, frankly, disfunction is the new norm.

To this end, I must confess that I have had a brief existential crisis about the bookshelves that sit behind me, worrying that my clients and candidates are squinting at my husband’s collection of National Geographic Magazines and thinking that I collect old copies of the Yellow Pages.

I can guarantee that precious few of the individuals I am interacting with virtually will be judging me on such an issue, but chances are, they are having similar if not identical anxieties themselves.  Throughout lock-down there has been much written about the best way to go about virtual meetings.  It is all great advice and I am sure that we are all far more accomplished than we were at the start.  Yet whilst we should always aim for best practice, the imperfection of our current situation means that our interpretation of professionalism is different, and we need to be kind to ourselves and others.  

Clearly, I would not go into a face to face meeting with clients or candidates wearing my pyjamas or eating a snack.  But there are other eventualities that are hard to avoid in our current position such as the dog jumping on my lap or my youngest having a melt-down in the adjoining room about his maths.  This is where we are and the best route to coping is being human and focusing on connecting personally. 

I believe that the approach I take to my work vouchsafes my aspiration to do my best.  Equally, I make the same judgement of others.  So perhaps let’s take a break from judging each other’s bookshelves, and instead invest in supporting each other.

For more information please contact Elizabeth James, Partner and head of the Education Practice at Berwick Partners.

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