Q: How much do appearances affect hiring decisions and career success? Obviously, my company is just one example and doesn’t represent a widespread trend, but it seems that the more traditionally “attractive” people get more promotions and higher level projects. Am I crazy? Should I go get a makeover?
A: Studies have shown that appearance does affect hiring decisions and promotability. People hire people like them, whether in terms of appearance, background, or beliefs. We all suffer from unconscious bias—based on a multitude of beliefs, and many organizations are taking steps to eliminate these biases or at least make people aware of them. One significant activity to remove bias from hiring practices is by blanking out names on resumes and using standardized interview questions .
You mention a makeover, but remember: Appearance and being considered attractive isn’t just what you look like—it is also how you present yourself. Organizations value well-groomed, odor-free people who wear clean, well-fitting clothes, polished shoes, business-appropriate make up, and socks that don’t slouch around their ankles. Many organizations have asked me to speak to women who wear “too much” make up, men whose shirts used to fit, and people whose hair needs to be addressed. Think about the message your appearance might send. Are you still wearing glasses from high school? You might give the impression that you don’t welcome change. Do you scramble to find matching socks in the morning and just wear whatever is clean? People might assume you lack attention to detail. Unless you’re some extraordinary software engineer who can just email in work and never makes presentations, having a polished presentation is going to make a difference.
Appearance is also about overall presence, including professional behavior, positive attitude, energy, resourcefulness, curiosity, and a complement of other behaviors that are rewarded in the workplace. This is a terrific area in which to expend your energy. Think about how your attitude might affect others’ perception of you. If people don’t have the opportunity to experience positive behaviors from you, they make quick judgments based on what they see in appearance.
You don’t mention the kind of work you do, but the type of role matters for this issue. Client-facing roles are inherently going to require a certain presentation more than a back of the house role. Think about the culture of the organization. Do you work at a very conservative firm? A visible tattoo might limit your advancement. If you work in more relaxed industry, that same tattoo may not have an impact at all.
Appearances start with the physical, of course, and so much of that can easily be influenced. Having clean hair, being well-groomed, wearing current, well-fitting clothes and flattering accessories will have a big impact—and all are within your control. What’s harder to change in appearance are behaviors, which contribute significantly to attractiveness. These behaviors are what colleagues need to see for you to get promotions and higher level projects. If all of the positive behaviors are there, often times companies will talk to a high-potential employee about positively impacting their appearance. It’s not uncommon for businesses to hire personal stylists, vocal coaches, or makeup artists to assist these people. Ultimately, the company wants someone who represents their company well and performs exceptionally—these two things need to go hand in hand.
It sounds like you aren’t getting selected for promotions and projects. Do you think it’s strictly appearance based? Have you tried changing anything about your appearance? Is there anything related to your attitude that might be driving this? Most importantly, have you let your organization know that you’re interested in more opportunities? Go to your manager and say, “I noticed I’ve been passed over for the past three big projects; I’m interested in getting assigned to these. What can I do to improve my chances?” If they’re forthcoming and provide feedback, that’s great—something completely unrelated to appearance could have been hindering you. If they aren’t straightforward, go back and say “Are there things about my attire, physical appearance, or behavior that I need to change?” People are often uncomfortable with these discussions, but if you open the door to it, you are more likely to get honest feedback. Some people will be concerned about legal implications to your questions and may not respond candidly. You may need to discuss this with a colleague or someone who will advocate on your behalf.
While appearances inevitably play a role in one’s career advancement, it is heartening to know that the majority of it are aspects within your control—the general tidiness of your clothing and hygiene and the characteristics and behaviors you exhibit in the workplace. Focus on these things and skip the makeover.