Stanford University

How Your Appearance Impacts Your Success

Look the part. That’s what people from my grandmother’s generation used to say. It meant looking like the professionals who belonged to the group that you wanted to be a part of. It also meant carrying yourself, through your demeanor, in a manner that’s consistent with the expectations of the role you play in business.

Over the years, things have become, in a word, relaxed. Too relaxed for people from my grandmother’s generation. Casual or dress down Fridays have permeated the work week creating a blur between casual and business attire, bringing with it a casual attitude toward professionalism.

I remember wearing ties during my interviews with small companies after working corporate jobs. Depending on the culture of the company, ties were either applauded or frowned upon. You often don’t know this information prior to interviewing and most recruiters will tell you to error on the side of being overdressed, rather than being underdressed. I was turned down multiple times on the basis of “not fitting in.”

They didn’t need a 30 minute interview to figure that out. All they needed was 5 to 7 seconds according to Lesley Everett, author of the book Walking Tall: Key Steps to Total Image Impact. He writes: In those first 15 seconds we have got key clues into how somebody operates, into their business approach, their attitude, their personality. So when we get to 30 seconds, we are given more than enough time to make that impression subconsciously. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink he makes reference to this in what psychologists refer to as “the power of thin slicing” which allows us to see the most essential components of a situation, object, or person.

My prospective employers were able to see that my tightly knotted tie (proof of my rigidity), my sparkling cuff links (stylistic value), and my polished Stacy Adams shoes (personality) revealed a potential culture clash. I looked the part of a slick corporate player – not someone who was similar to the existing staff who were referenced in my interview as being “like a family.”

I look back on that job hunting experience and I’m forced to agree with those who turned me down: I did not fit in. I had, and still do have, a corporate mentality – even though I prefer the collaborative, intimate atmosphere of a small company. I like the structure, policies, and financial layering of the corporate machine; my first impression gave that appearance and I’m sure the ensuing interview just confirmed it.

While it’s true that you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression, you do get 20 chances to make up for it – if you are lucky. Research shows that it takes another 20 further experiences with somebody to change a first impression. Subsequent experiences are of course largely determined by that first impression, so it behooves you to know how to capitalize on that 5-7 second window of opportunity.

The advantage someone has in getting what they want if they are in touch with what their appearance communicates to others is sizeable. What people see during that quick 5-7 seconds of scanning formulates a perceived truth that they subconsciously seek to match against additional information that you voluntarily provide, or that they soon discover.

On a subconscious level, we are all aware of this. We put on our “Sunday’s best” for church, we put our “best foot forward” when meeting the friends and parents of our significant other, and we “dress to impress” when going to social events. Clearly, the awareness, if not the importance of appearances is instilled in all of us to some degree.

It’s common for people to mistake appearance for looks. Looks are what you were born with, appearance is how you manage and present those looks; however ordinary or extraordinary they may be. From that perspective, it really doesn’t matter what you look like in terms of constructing and presenting a winning appearance. Or does it?

A famous study by economists Daniel Hamermesh and Jeff Biddle uses survey data to examine the impact that appearance has on a person’s earnings. In each survey, the interviewer who asked the questions also rated the respondents’ physical appearance. Respondents were classified into one of the following groups: below average, average and above average.

In other words, a person with below-average looks tended to earn 9 percent less per hour, and an above-average person tended to earn 5 percent more per hour than an average-looking person. For the median male working full time, the respective penalty and premium ranged from $1,400 to $2,600 annually. The corresponding penalty and premium for the median female worker ranged from $1,100 to $2,000 annually.

Hamermesh and Biddle found that the beauty premium exists even outside of occupations that require frequent interpersonal contact. Interestingly, the wage differential for obesity seems to be limited to white women. There were no wage differentials among fat women of other races. It’s consistent withsociety’s view that white women are “supposed” to be life-sized Barbie dolls. When they do not meet those physical requirements, they face repercussions.

So research confirms that beauty (physical attractiveness) is not only in the eye of the beholder, but is also the ticket to having more dollars in your bank account. Countless studies reveal that society affords many benefits and privileges to the beautiful including what scientists call the “halo effect” which results in the granting of favors, random acts of kindness, more popularity, higher perceived levels of intelligence (Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan may cause us to revisit this), and more favorable treatment in hiring and promotions.

In my first corporate job for a major magazine publisher me and my co-workers had a running bet on who the owner would hire when women came in for interviews. They would look at copies of the candidates’ resumes which I distributed to those involved in the interviewing process, and I would just look at the candidate. If she was blonde with great symmetry, I knew she would be hired.

At the time I did not know the rationale behind symmetry, I just knew his preference. Charles Feng of the Human Biology department at Stanford University explains symmetry preferences in his article Looking Good: The Psychology and Biology of Beauty: Symmetry preference in both humans and animals is that symmetric individuals have a higher mate-value; scientists believe that this symmetry is equated with a strong immune system. Thus, beauty is indicative of more robust genes, improving the likelihood that an individual’s offspring will survive.

For men, height appears to be the ticket for favoritism.

Economists Nicola Persico, Andrew Postlewaite and Dan Silverman tried to explain the origin of the “height premium.” They found that for white men in the United States, a 1.8-percent increase in wages accompanies every additional inch of height. Men’s wages as adults can be linked to their height at age 16. For a given adult height, Persico, Postlewaite and Silverman found that increasing height at age 16 by one inch increased adult wages by 2.6 percent, on average. For two adult men of the same height, the one who was taller at 16 would most likely earn the higher wage.

Gladwell reports in Blink that researchers who analyzed the data from four large research studies, that had followed thousands of people from birth to adulthood, and calculated that when corrected for variables like age and gender and weight, an inch of height is worth $789 a year in salary. That means that a person who is six feet tall, but who is otherwise identical (in qualifications) to someone who is five foot five, will make on average $5,525 more per year. If you are a man who is vertically challenged (i.e. born short) don’t despair; men’s elevator shoes (which can give you up to an additional 5 inches in height) are a top selling item on the Internet.

So in the end, your appearance offers a glimpse into who you are (personality, temperament, disposition, mentality, and values) based on perceptions held by others. There are many factors that contribute to those perceptions such as beauty, symmetry, and wardrobe selection. Your appearance sends these messages to an employer who uses them to screen you out of a job, or to envision you in a new position.

Some researchers have even linked appearance to productivity in ways that are not as easily measured (or as obvious) as are other characteristics, like education or experience. Appearance, for example, can affect confidence and communication, thereby influencing productivity. This is readily evidenced in sales and marketing positions, and seems to be a prerequisite for real estate agents. With the appropriate attention to these details you can use them to your benefit to increase your chances of getting a new job or a promotion.

Needless to say, most people have average looks; make-up helps to embellish those looks. For women, a $50.00 make-over is a worthy investment that can teach you how to properly and proficiently enhance your looks to better manage your appearance.

Symmetry is really about how your body is proportioned. Altering a lopsided body through the illusion of clothing is something that most stylists are good at, in addition to giving you objective feedback on wardrobe selection for an optimal professional presentation.

By controlling the aspects of your appearance that are controllable, you can positively influence the impact that your appearance has on your success.

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