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The Importance of Appearance

post # 425 — September 3, 2007 — a Careers, Client Relations, Managing post

Back in February, I blogged about my experience being a juror. As part of the follow-on discussion, Penelope Trunk (who has a fabulous blog called ‘The Brazen Careerist’) commented: “one thing I learned is that fat women don’t have a lot of empathy and defendants usually try to strike those jurors.”

Yesterday, Joseph Dunphy reacted by saying: “On behalf of many, I suspect, I’d just like to say WHAT? Did I really just read that? Unbelievable. That’s just terrible.”

I understand Joseph’s initial reaction, but I don’t think Penelope was advocating anything — she was just sharing her real-world experience that appearance matters a great deal more than we like to admit openly.

For example, last week I was conducting a workshop for a global corporation that had concentrated a number of its in-house services into one “shared services” unit. One service line in particular received much higher client satisfaction ratings than the others. We discussed why, and focused on the traditional client service topics.

During one of the coffee breaks, one of the participants came up to me and said, “The real reason that unit does so well is that it explicitly sets out to hire attractive young women. No-one likes to admit it, but that makes a huge difference.” (The unit was in a South American country, if that makes a difference to your reaction to the story.)

Of course it does. I know of more than one top-flight professional firm that takes appearance into account in its hiring of both males and females and gives its young people lessons in how to dress well and how to behave with sophistication.

Should appearance, youth and manners matter? Maybe not, but they do — a lot. To pretend they do not is just unrealistic.

Yet in many countries this is called discrimination and is legally barred.

All of this raises some interesting questions:

Should more firms continue to include physical appearnace in their hiring, even to the point of preferring some ages and genders?

Are we naive to believe they are not already doing that?

Are discrimination laws fighting a losing battle against human nature?

Should I get back on the treadmill and worry more about my clothing in order to enhance my career prospects?


Hugh Watkins said:


I think we can expand this to say that a professional services firm should have nice offices with nice flowers with nice receptionists and with good coffee.

None of this should matter, but it does.

Oh – yes to the treadmill!

Hugh Watkins

posted on September 3, 2007

Thomas Box said:

Responding to your questions: Firms should continue to consider appearnace in the hiring process if they can demonstrate that appearance is a BOQ. This is incredibly hard to do (from a legal/statistical perspective) so most firms, as a practical matter, should avoid using appearance as a hiring criteria.

Getting back on the treadmill? Appropriate business attire is important because it can drive perceptions and, as our marketing bretheren tell us, perception is reality. However, appropriate business attire is obtainable at reasonable cost from outfits like Lands End. You don’t have to “hock the farm” to dress with Brooks Brothers.

posted on September 3, 2007

Stephen Downes said:

My appearance has always been unusual, partly through choice and partlt through genetics.

I have certainly seen people react to both me an others on the basis of appearance.

With me, they have usually reacted to my long hair. To my beard, when I had one. To my informal dress. To my size and weight.

To my friends, they have reacted to the colour of their skin, the style of their hair, their religious dress, their weight, and more.

I have learned something over the years.

That while it is a matter of fact that people evaluate others by their appearance, the good ones don’t.

It is better for me – and a competitive advantage – to associate with the good ones, and not the superficial.

posted on September 3, 2007

David (Maister) said:

No, Thomas, you’re right that it isn’t about spending lots of money. But, for a lot of people, (including me) there is still a lingering resentment that I have to worry at all about how I look. I hate having to worry about such questions as: Is my hair too long and do I need a haircut? Does this tie really go with that suit? Do I really need to understaand the ever-changing rules of “dress for success?”

For years – no, decades – I have fought against having to worry about such things (“Why can’t they just focus on the advice I have to give?”) but – perhaps too late – I now realize that it mattered (and matters) a lot more than I have admitted.

posted on September 3, 2007

Heidi Ehlers said:

Appearance matters.

Whether we like it or not. We make snap decisions based on appearance a million times a day. It’s why there is a multi gazillion dollar fashion and design and anything related to aesthetics industry.

Don’t we think differently about the people living in the house with the weed infested lawn and the three broken down cars in the driveway, then we do about the people living in the house with the manicured property and the swept driveway?

Good ones, superficial ones, bad ones, people make judgements based on appearance.

I believe it’s more about grooming than the physical attributes you were born with. Someone who comes to a meeting well groomed is sending a subliminal message about preparedness, attention to detail and professionalism. (I didn’t say shirt and tie, I said groomed).

After spending 11 years as a talent scout for creative people I’ve seen it all. The creative industries have more latitude in this area. But I’ve also observed a link between the success of a person (which is related to their ability to sell their ideas) and the meticulousness of their grooming.

Congratulations on your choice to have long hair and a beard and your size and your weight Stephen. It takes courage to make people work so hard to get past how you’ve chosen to occur to your clients to get to your intelligence and the value you offer.

Me, I’d prefer not to take up any of their brain cells or limited attention span to focus on what I want them to focus on. Which is how I can help them.

Last month I did a webcast for young creative people coming out of school on how to construct a fabulous career. It was attended by people from all over the world. I can monitor via the dashboard whether people are following along with the presentation through a bar that shows me what percentage of the people have the powerpoint up on their screen and what percentage of the people are checking their email.

Throughout the entire presentation I had about 85% of the people following along with the power point. BUT when I spoke about grooming and going to an interview dressed like the interview matters, 98% of the audience switched off the presentation, and starting doing something else.

Obviously I struck a nerve. People don’t like to admit that it’s important, but it is important. People react to appearance. Can’t change that. (Yes, it’s superficial, but again, can’t change that.)

I, from my own experience, have observed the radical difference in how I’m treated in public when I run to the store in my mud infested gardening clothes, and how I’m treated when I’ve taken a moment to pull it together.

I’m still the same person, but at this point, they have no idea who I am and what I stand for. So they’re reacting to the choice I’ve made and who they believe I am. A slob? Or an intelligent person with an aesthetic. Their response, based on my choice.

Fair game.

My belief continues to be that taking the time to groom and do the most you can with what you’ve been given is respectful to the audience, the topic at hand, and takes away the static that I believe careless grooming creates.

Instead of trying to get the world to think that appearance doesn’t matter, I’d rather work with the way the world thinks, be respectful to myself and the audience, and be disruptive in far more compelling ways.

Being sloppy, or out of shape, or ungroomed, is too easy. Anyone can do that.

Discipline is remembering what you want. Success requires discpline. Starting with your appearance.

posted on September 3, 2007

Richard Becker said:

I think we may need to make a distinction here. It’s often not that someone is fat or thin as much as how they pull themselves together. A heavier person who dresses right might leave a better impression than someone who is thin, but does not.

The same can be said with other personal grooming decisions.

The questions are almost never is my hair too long or “dress for success” forumals as much as it does long hair work “for me” as an individual or is this suit tailored correctly (Or, am I even comfortable in a suit; because maybe there is an alternative if I am not).

So yes, appearence makes an impact, but, as we see too often, it’s not all formula. As one of my clients tell me (she is an image consultant), image isn’t really about what you look like as much as it is about how you feel about you. One example might be how you feel when you walk into a room … when you do, are you thinking you look your best or are you worried because your overdressed (or maybe that tie doesn’t match). How you feel likely make a bigger impacy than what you are actually wearing.

posted on September 3, 2007

David (Maister) said:

Wow! Hard to argue with any of that. I wish had that quote from you before I put my new book (STARTEGY AND THE FAT SMOKER) to bed. Maybe I can sneak it in somewhere: “Discipline is remembering what you want.” Thanks, Heidi.

posted on September 3, 2007

David (Maister) said:

And you, Richard.

What about the hiring questions? If you’re a manager or an employer, how much would you / do you allow appearance to play in your decisions?

posted on September 3, 2007

Heidi Ehlers said:

In response to your question about hiring managers, my area of expertise.

Time for a dating analogy. I always tell people who I’m coaching prior to meeting with my client. You don’t answer the door on a blind date in your track pants, greasy hair, unshaven.

If you did, imagine how the rest of the date would go?

If someone shows up ‘groomed’ for the interview, it tends to colour everything that comes out of their mouth. It doesn’t guarantee that the person interviewing you will think that everything that comes out of your mouth will be met with agreement, but it sure helps.

Again, such a simple thing to have control over, and something that I can completely control. My brand and what I want it to stand for.

Whether people are willing to admit that they allow appearance to play a role in decisions, I can tell you from personal experience and 10 years of in camera feedback from clients post interview….it does.

No one has EVER said to me. “He/She looked professional and prepared for our interview.” But I have had clients say to me, (remember I deal with creative people) “Can’t believe he/she showed up looking like that.”

So I know that my client sat there for at least 10 minutes thinking about a) whether they would ever go to an interview dressed like that, b) would they put this slob in front of their clients to represent him/her and/or them c) what sort of judgement does this person have if they chose to show up looking like that.

Instead of listening to or even better hearing the person being interviewed. Their inner voice drowned out what was being said.

p.s. For the record, I’d prefer nothing more than a world where I could to work dressed like Hugh Hefner

posted on September 3, 2007

Richard Becker said:


There are many ways to answer your question to give it meaning beyond a direct answer. But I’ll start with direct.

As our company shifted to rely on the Internet talent more and inperson talent less, appearance doesn’t play a factor at all (and with better results). On many occassions, I never see the people I am hiring for a paticular job.

However, I want to qualify this a bit because I’m not saying appearence does not matter. We will be among the first to tell a political candidate to lose facial hair (in most cases). And yet, have learned on more than one occassion that it’s best not to interview construction workers in a suit.

Yet, from my view, while I tend to consider appearence for me, am fit, and am careful in what I choose to wear; I am also careful not to project my self-expectation onto others.

In sum, there seems to be internal benefits to dressing your best and maintaining a well-groomed appearence (even sight unseen). However, to be an effective leader, judging others on their appearence may or may not be the best measure of their capabilities.

It almost goes back to my take on perception vs. reality. We can all be mindful that perception is reality in a large context … but to actually believe that perception is reality on an individual level, well, that too can lead to some undesireable results. Maybe appearences are the same way.

If I were hiring someone inhouse today and narrowed it to two candidates who were equally experienced and talented, appearence could place one above the other. But I would sincerely hope, I would not simply accept appearence as the first measure in my hiring decision, as appearence can be guided whereas deficiencies in other areas might not be.

Best, Rich

posted on September 3, 2007

Carl Singer said:

I agree, but would like to break appearance into two components: (1) God Given, (2) controllable

1 – the former is basically those things that for the most part can’t be controlled — age, height, etc. — I believe for the most part these are givens that we are not supposed to use as discriminants. Although, frankly, we may.

2- in contrast there are the controllables — grooming, wardrobe, demeaner, etc. These are controllable and I believe we naturally discriminate based on these controllables.

My mother commented that when she was in school they wore school uniforms which diminished the discrimination between rich and poor students. Not entirely to the point, but of interest.

In my many years of military service I ALWAYS looked at grooming — shoeshine, haircut, bearing …. for two reasons: — first as an absolute (direct) indicator and second given that each soldier certainly knows that they will be judged by their grooming — it’s an indicator of how much they care.

It’s like a teacher saying these 3 questions will be on tomorrow’s quiz — you’ve had fair warning.

posted on September 4, 2007

Joseph Dunphy said:

Two comments, Mr.Maister, 1. I love the way in which you slightly mangled the url for my blog, creating the illusion that it no longer existed. At the time of this writing, as one can see by clicking on the url I’ve entered (assuming that you won’t re-edit that) or doing a search for “Joseph Dunphy’s Blog to Come”, this is not the case.

2. You spend your post changing the subject. When Trunk begins a comment with the words “one thing I learned is that fat women don’t have a lot of empathy …”, that is not a comment on the undeniable unfairness of life, but on the character of full figured women, and a bigoted one at that. Try this one on for size – let’s say Trunk had written “one thing I learned is that black women don’t have a lot of empathy …” Regardless of what Trunk followed such an outrageous remark with, her bigotry would be out there for all to see. The only question at that point would be “how much more deeply will she dig herself in”.

The fact that she has based her bigotry on weight instead of skin color does not lift her bigotry to a higher moral plane.

posted on September 5, 2007

David (Maister) said:

My apologies for mangling your blog URL. I don’t know how that happened.

You may also be right that I misinterpreted Ms. Trunk.

But it raises the intersting questions about of all stereotypes: (a) are they statistically valid and (b) when is it valid to base decisions on statistical-valid differences?

posted on September 5, 2007

Stephen Downes said:

Ah… this is what I was thinking of when I read this…

Being Black is Kinda a Corporate Don’t

posted on September 6, 2007

Rachel said:

I, too, think you have Ms. Trunk an undeserved benefit of doubt, David. Her comment was clearly based on assumptions, rooted in stereotypes of a class of people. Like Joseph noted, if her comments were directed any any certain ethnicity, it would easily be called out for what it is: discrimination. Furthermore, a quick glance at Trunk’s blog reveals other vastly assumptive and bigoted comments against fat and fat people, so I don’t believe her comment was ingenuous.

On a side note, I would love to know how Ms. Trunk has come to learn this “truth” about all fat women. I wonder what other “truths” she holds about other groups of people who don’t fit into her milieu, as well.

To address your follow-up questions about stereotypes… By their very definition, stereotypes are oversimplified opinions, based on a fixed idea or concept. I could easily postulate the opinion that because there is a disproportionate number of black people in prison, that all black people are prone to criminal behavior. Yet I don’t know anyone who would see the merits in basing law enforcement, judicial and legislative acts based this stereotype.

And even statistically valid stereotypes are wrong in many instances. Not every Arab hassled at the airport is a terrorist. Not all black single mothers are on welfare. Not every Asian person is a genius. Generalizations about race, gender, religion, weights are morally wrong. They are wrong even if they are statistically valid. Even rational discrimination has its victims and some generalizations are especially poisonous.

I think the more appropriate question would be: should our culture and society absorb and reflect these stereotypes, or should we undermine these stereotypes, even the statistically valid ones, to reflect the diversity of human behavior?

I believe the latter is what they call “progress.”

posted on September 6, 2007

Shelley Greening said:

I’m a CPA in a progressive firm in the midwest. My hair is dyed purple – not brash “grape” pigment purple, but a deep, cark “eggplant” more natural purple that most people see as brunette unless the light catches it right, or I’m wearing a purple blouse that brings out the color.

My boss is concerned about the first impression I might make. I’ve had some positive reactions, but he thinks that most people who say nothing, are just being “nice.”

I think we should capitalize on our ability to be “a little bit different” and not afraid to step out of the box.

He thinks that it just does not present the image of “a quality professional person.”

posted on September 7, 2007

Carl Singer said:

Ms. Greening’s post is of interest — at what point does appearance become a topic of conversation or a discriminator? (Positive or negative.)

How many standard deviations from the norm (so to speak) before decisions are based on same.

posted on September 18, 2007

ashutosh wakankar said:

Why is it so difficult for most to accept that appearance is an important and valid criteria in decision making…isn’t it in every walk of life. Wouldn’t you prefer to shop in a place that has better ambience even if the merchandise were the same. it is one thing to take a moral high ground and another to make choices involving very high stakes..imagine taking your child to a doctor who walks in unshaven and sloppy…how many of us will keep our prejudices aside and feel confortable following his advice… good appearance (irrespective of color, weight etc.) will be prefered over non-so-good at the first glance and not-so-good will have to work a bit harder to prove its case..it is all about how you are going to differentiate yourself and since appearance is one of the easiest to address (comapred to skill or attitude) it is almost a ticket to entry…

probably there is a puritanical streak in all of us which tells us to valus substance over style and that style is superficial …and that is precisely why it is th eonly differentiator till the not-so-superficial traits play out..and in many cases one may not spend the required time to see them.

So, appearances will continue to matter and it is not such a invalid thing.

And if you still choose to ignore it then make sure your other differentiators leap out as soon as possible to negate the effect of your-chosen-appearance…a reputation that precedes you may be the best bet..;0))

posted on October 12, 2007

David Speight said:

I think appearance and demeanour are important. Some years ago, a colleague and I attended a “beauty parade” to tender for valuation work for a US company’s site in India. We were “interviewed” by a large lady who spent most of the meeting eating Danish Pastries, and asking obstructive questions. If she had tried to be more objectionable, it’s hard to think how she could have done it.

I knew instinctively that we weren’t really in the running for the instruction, and that this was a “no win” situation, which proved to be the case. I also knew that even if we won the instruction, we could never work with the client.

The instruction finally went to Arthur Andersen. The moral is that the lady in question could have done a lot more for her employer by behaving reasonably to the tenderers, and appearing more professional, though as it was Enron, I don’t suppose it mattered!

posted on November 6, 2007

Rachel said:

The way one presents onself is important, absolutely. Professional dress, appearance and demeanor not only says volumes about you, but also about the company you work for.

But the fact that one is a woman, black, hispanic, fat, etc… has absolutely no bearing on how one performs their job and shouldn’t be included in the judging criteria for a professional appearance.

To take Penelope Trunk’s contention – that people should lose weight to increase their prospects for a job – we’re only reinforcing discriminatory practices. It’s like saying a woman should have a sex change, or a black person should undergo skin lightning. We need to fix the discriminatory attitude, not the person being discriminated against.

posted on November 6, 2007

Shobha Gowri said:

I am left wondering if appearance-in terms of size and color and race -and grooming are one and the same.

To me, they are not.

I don’t think one can do much about the color of the skin ,race and in some cases even the size of a person.

But grooming is definitely on a different plane: it is the ability to find out what suits you and to carry it off with aplomb. It is the ability to “look good” .Most times, when I speak to young people, they think that means wearing expensive-latest-in- fashion clothes and matching accessories. Which it isn’t.

So what matters is not your appearance but your grooming which also includes your good manners.

If appearances were the only deciding factor ,we should be seeing models in all the organizations and organization that choose people on looks need just that-looks and not brains or skills.

Organizations that choose “looks’ are the ones that will have problems because how long can we keep looking at a pretty/handsome face and get nothing else out of it?

How many times have we not seen fabulously well dressed men and women uncomfortable and lacking confidence and realized we are not interested in them after the first glance. If what I can see coming from a person is their strength of character, intelligence, knowledge and warmth I definitely won’t be influenced by how they look and will definitely re-orient my opinion and thought.

I think finally, what comes through is what you carry inside you-your confidence, your warmth and not the dollar tag on yourself

And the rest (who don’t see beyond) are not worth the trouble.

posted on November 28, 2007

Leading Change said:

Dear David,

Finally, a forum that goes beyond skin-deep analyses. Our challenge as a society is that we ignore, condone, tolerate, and feel helpless about inappropriate conduct and just plain wrong behavior. We lead busy lives and in many cases we have become immune when we see or hear about unethical conduct. You would think that universities and colleges would lead the way in ethical conduct. Read below for a case study of how higher ed often lacks the courage to do the right thing.

DISTINGUISHED Professor? Really? How so?

Recently James Grillo, ex-Vice President for Administrative Affairs at Alfred State College, one of the 64 campuses of the State University of New York, was awarded the Distinguished Teaching Professorship recognizing extraordinary teaching and exceptional professional conduct. He received a pay raise and a letter commending him on his extraordinary accomplishment from the Acting Chancellor of the State University of New York, John Clarke.

Distinguished? Mr. Grillo was investigated in 2006 for unethical conduct by an independent legal firm which determined that he had violated SUNY Board of Trustees policies, Department of Labor laws, and that he had possibly violated federal tax law. The law firm wrote, “It is our recommendation that due to the serious nature of Mr. Grillo’s actions and inaction, as well the lack of judgment he demonstrated in connection with the compensation matter, he should not be considered for any administrative position within the College in the future.”

Mr. Grillo is also well-known for owing a local bar in Alfred, just a few yards away from the college campus, ironically known as “Gentleman Jim’s.” This bar is notorious for repeatedly placing Alfred State College students at risk. A letter from Alfred State Vice President for Student Affairs, dated December 27, 2005, addressed to Mr. D Andrew Edwards, Jr. who was then General Counsel of the State University of New York notes “…concerns that Mr. Grillo operates a bar adjacent to the campus property where there have been a number of unsafe and high risk incidents with our students” A series of reports submitted to SUNY with this letter document cases of “highly intoxicated students returning from the bar, drunken driving incidents on campus, women at risk and the consumption of alcohol by minors on the premises of this property” (ibid).

Mr. Grillo does not have a distinguished academic record by any definition of the term. He has never published a paper and only recently returned to full-time teaching as a “demotion” for engaging in unethical conduct when he was Vice President for Administrative Affairs.

The SUNY Board of Trustees and the Acting Chancellor, John Clarke, actually knew that Mr. Grillo had engaged in unethical conduct when Grillo was granted this award. In fact, John Clarke was the interim President at Alfred State College before he became the Acting Chancellor and was close friends with Mr. Grillo. In spite of his unethical conduct and for putting our students at risk at a local bar that he owned (a clear conflict of interest), the State University of New York rewarded Mr.Grillo with a Distinguished Teaching Professorship and gave him a pay raise using tax payers’ money.

When questioned as to why Mr. Grillo was given the Distinguished Teaching Professorship given his undistinguished record, SUNY responded that Mr. Grillo had behaved unethically as an administrator, not as a faculty member!! Want the full scoop?

Contact John Clarke at john.clarke@suny.edu

Contact President of Alfred State College at rosatirr@alfredstate.edu

Contact the SUNY Board of Trustees at trustees@suny.edu

posted on November 28, 2007

Angela said:


“Some” employers may hire attractive women but those women are often in jobs that require them to look “cute”. Sales and front office work often come to mind. But, that will not necessarily work in careers where “brains” count more than looks. If you are an extremely attractive woman in the workplace, you will have an extremely difficult time being taken seriously. This is especially true in male dominated professions where “brains” are more important than looks. Some people still associate “attractive” women with being a “sexetary”.

Also, an attractive woman will still encounter “older” and yes more “fatter” female executives who are not inclined to assist them because they are envious. Do not underestimate the power that other women in an organization have in blocking “attractive” women from advancement. Double-edge sword.

posted on February 24, 2008

Carl A. Singer said:

Revisting this after several months ….

I, and others, mentioned “demeaner” but never went on to discuss this in much detail.

Demeaner, like grooming, is to a great extent controllable. Would you rather work with — or hire — or interact with — someone with a pleasant demeaner, a confident demeaner, an empathetic demeaner …. OR (let’s think up some negative images) surly, disinterested, nervous demeaner ….

Again there are lots of controllables

Let’s consider also the combination of demeaner and appearance.

Demeaner can emphasize / negate both positive or negative appearance traits. For example, there are people who “carry themselves well” and their (negative?) physical traits don’t come into play. This may be a simplistic example — but we cannot look at people via one dimension — it’s the interaction that builds our picture.

posted on February 24, 2008

Free quote structured settlement said:

I feel that company should go by appearance till the time it is not proving harmful for the company. What’ the use if we hire a beautiful woman but she knows nothing about the work profile because ultimately we have to take work for the company. Companies should put focus on the skills rather than outer looks.

posted on April 17, 2008