Normalization of the Dingo Berry

Gulf+Western Building-sYears ago, I sold an east coast consulting firm to a larger competitor on the west coast. That firm was in the process of being acquired by Prentice-Hall which was in turn being acquired by Gulf+Western (a multinational that is now called Paramount).

In very short order, I became the youngest VP throughout all subsidiaries of a Fortune 500 company. Gulf+Western was huge. They owned a Hollywood studio, the New York Knicks, Simmons Mattress company and 119 other diverse ventures.

Our new corporate parent threw a lot of money our way. My new boss, Bill, was CEO of the acquiring firm. He instructed me to hire a new General Manager for Eastern Operations.

Martin S. Davis, Gulf+Western-sUpon placing ads and hosting a career fair, I whittled the list down to 3 candidates. Bill assured me that the hiring decision was all mine. But knowing that I planned to leave the firm within a year, he explained that he would fly out to watch me conduct the final interviews. After all, in short order, the new east coast manager would be reporting to him.

The next morning, I got to my office at 7:30 am. I was surprised to find that Bill had arrived earlier and was working in an unlit corner of our big conference room. He had talked his way past a security guard in the lobby. Throughout the day, he sat quietly and watched me grill the final candidates. I recall each one vividly. There was:

  • A white male
  • A black male
  • A white female

Each of these final-picks was a credible candidate. All seemed qualified. With a few reservations, I suspect that each was up to the task.

Because Bill was my superior (and because he flew all the way across the country to observe my hiring process), I politely asked for his opinion before verifying references and making a final decision. Bill declined to express a preference. Again, he assured me that the hiring decision was mine, alone. He was only in town to lend moral support and to observe candidates up close.

Before retiring to make the decision, Bill asked me for a preliminary assessment. I cautiously told him that I was discounting the female candidate for weaknesses that I discussed (it was not sexism…Our staff and senior management were ⅔ female).

Thus, I was left with two male candidates: One Caucasian and one African American.

During the acquisition of my firm, some of Bill’s statements and gestures suggested to me that he might harbor prejudice toward African Americans. Far from certain, I was braced for him to pressure me to drop the black candidate. But, to my surprise, he said “If your decision is between the two male candidates, then I certainly expect that you will hire Henry!” (the black candidate).

Harrison’s dingo-berry

Harrison Ford’s dingo-berry

Noting my surprise, Bill said: “If you are thinking that I am a racist, you are dead wrong. But I’ll be damned if we’re going to hire a regional manager with a dingo-berry in his ear!”  (The white candidate had a tiny diamond in his left ear lobe).

These events took place in the mid-1980s. They were cross over years for men with jewelry. For me, the “dingo-berry” barely registered. I probably would have been as firm as Bill if the jewelry was in a candidate’s upper ear, eyebrow, nose, tongue or nipple. But I had given up on ears years earlier.

Post Script

I ran into Bill this past year. It was the first time that I had seen him in decades. He was older, of course, but looking healthy and fit. To my surprise, he has a tiny earing in one ear. His wife had none. My, how things have changed!

Incidentally, I don’t recall which candidate I hired. But I do recall that my new hire was replaced shortly after I left the company. No hard feelings, Bill.