Think Looks Don’t Matter? Think Again

Does physical appearance make a difference when asking for a raise or promotion?

By David Cox, SPHR, SHRM-SCP | March 16, 2017

Your looks can help–or hinder–your chances of getting a well-deserved promotion, regardless of qualifications, especially in a weaker economy when advancement opportunities seem more infrequent than in times past.

Gordon Patzer, Ph.D., a psychologist from Chicago has studied the effects of physical appearance in the workplace for over 30 years. He said, “As people age, employers and colleagues perceive them as having less energy and being less effective.” He continues by saying, “Being older in the workplace is looked at negatively.” He even goes on to suggest that bleaching your teeth, wearing appropriate makeup, or updating your hairstyle or wardrobe can take years off a person’s look.

I’m not ready to recommend those steps to everyone, but it did make me wonder what drives the emphasis on appearance in the modern workplace.

What’s behind this type of thinking?

It turns out that our emphasis on appearance is not a modern phenomenon. Various psychological reasons explain why we choose to promote better-looking people and keep the rest behind. According to Patzer, there is even evidence that our ancestors felt better-looking people were thought to be more productive.

Patzer believes that better-looking people have historically proven themselves more capable in providing food and shelter. In terms of behavior, Patzer says, “People of higher physical attractiveness are more persuasive, which is critical in the workplace.” He also notes that stature makes a difference in the workplace. “We like to look up to our leaders,” says Patzer, noting that a subordinate is more likely to respond positively to a taller manager.

Malcolm Gladwell calls the behavior an “unconscious prejudice,” a prejudice you reach without even thinking. In his best-selling book, Blink, he polled about half the country’s top 500 CEOs and found that 58% were nearly 6 feet tall; in contrast, the average American male is 5 foot 9 inches tall.

Also, because most states don’t have laws against weight or height discrimination–men and women in the workplace are simply not protected from such prejudice. I don’t believe for a moment that either the courts or state legislatures have tacitly decided that it’s okay to demonstrate bias against employees based on appearance. However, the people involved in our political and judicial systems may feel that addressing discrimination based on physical appearance is simply too difficult.

What Can You Do?

I really don’t want to get into issues of weight and styles of clothing. Most studies show that confidence is considered an attractive quality to employers. The following list suggests things you can do to appear more confident:

  • No hands in your pockets
  • Maintain good posture (standing and sitting)
  • Don’t fidget
  • Maintain good eye contact
  • Offer a firm handshake
  • Groom to make a good impression
  • Smile
  • Don’t cross your arms or legs when socializing.
  • Speak in a clear voice (don’t mumble)

In a competitive work environment, it is only natural to want to do everything possible to get an extra edge. Your physical appearance probably shouldn’t matter, but it does. Why sabotage yourself by failing to appear confident or by giving less than your very best effort?

David Cox


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