There has long been an adage that it isn’t what you know that’s important for getting ahead in the business world, it’s who you know. Now it appears that what really counts is what you look like.
According to research by US economists, the more time you spend combing your hair and polishing your shoes in the morning, the more money you are likely to earn once you finally make it into the office. And, perhaps surprisingly, the effect is more pronounced for men than it is for women.
That backs up a growing body of economic literature that tells us that the better looking you are, the more likely you are to do well in life.
And, yet, what that says about the way modern business works is rather worrying: People are shallow in their judgements, they value showmanship over ability, and they are creating a culture of narcissism—in which the vain triumph over the worthy.
“There is a general understanding that people are judged on their appearance,” said Fiona Line, diversity adviser to the UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. “What is important is that companies should be recruiting based on talent, not on what people look like, however strong an instinct that might be.”
Leaving aside the rather obvious counter-example of Bill Gates, who didn’t exactly forsake a career in Hollywood to get into the computer industry, there is no disputing the basic data.
Jayoti Das and Stephen DeLoach of the Martha and Spencer Love School of Business at Elon University in North Carolina took the 2005 American Time Use Survey, which studied how 13,000 individuals filled up their day. They then compared that with earnings data.
“Extra time spent grooming has a positive and significant effect on both men’s and women’s earnings, but the effect is considerably larger for men,” they said in a paper called Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: The Effect of Time Spent Grooming on Wages.
“For men, every extra 10 minutes daily grooming increases their weekly wages by 6%. However, women would have to nearly quadruple their daily grooming time to receive that much in additional wages.”
In countries from the US to the UK, Australia and China, research has shown that those of us who might be mistaken for the back end of a bus are likely to earn much less than people who regularly find themselves mistaken for George Clooney.
And, yet, aside from pepping up our portfolios with some shares in the cosmetics maker L’Oreal SA, what does this obsession with how people look tell us about the business world?
Of course, nobody wants staff turning up in the office if they look like they spent the night sleeping on the streets. Their co-workers won’t appreciate it. Neither will the customers.
Likewise, putting some effort into your appearance might well be taken as a sign of commitment to your work and organization. It’s certainly reasonable for employers to reward the people who try hard over those who can’t really be bothered about their appearance or their work.
More importantly, “don’t judge a book by its cover” contains a healthy element of truth. By and large, people can’t do very much about how they look. Shouldn’t companies find a fairer way of assessing their workers?
Within most large corporations, showmanship is now rated more highly than ability or intrinsic worth. Presumably, businesses are assessing staff according to their looks because appearance rather than substance is what they are mostly about.
Out of hand
While there may be some justification for that—salesmanship is an important part of the success of any organization—it can get out of hand.
In reality, concentrating only on appearances was how we ended up with companies such as Enron Corp.—it looked great, but there was nothing inside.
Lastly, all those men spending extra time on their personal grooming every morning, and being rewarded with extra pay, are likely to be self-obsessed not just in getting ready for the office, but when they get there, as well.
We all know the type. They spend the whole day boasting about their achievements (often non-existent), taking credit for other people’s work, and schmoozing with the directors. They may be the ones who are getting the promotions. That doesn’t mean they are the best people to be running the business. In short, fakery rules. If you want a pay increase, invest in a better haircut. That’s how things work in a business culture dominated by vanity and pretense.