Most people agree that looking nice for work is important, especially if your office has regular client interaction. However, recent studies have shown that appearance can mean changing a lot more than that Grateful Dead T-shirt. According to a New York Times article, women who wear makeup are perceived as more competent than those who don’t. Men and women who are overweight typically earn thousands less than their trimmer counterparts (the effect is even more severe for women). A study by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found that people with “above-average looks” earn 5 percent more than average looking folks.
These studies confirm the general unfairness of life, from losing student body president elections to getting passed up for prom queen (bitter, who? me?) However, as adults with bills to pay, the stakes are higher. We also have choices in how we deal with these workplace realities.
The first option is to take your work appearance more seriously. USA Today spoke with Patti Pao, a vice-president of brand management, who never goes to a meeting without lipstick. Pao says, “You’re a personification of who you work for.” Matt Kennedy, a PR account executive, noticed that he started getting more job offers when he traded in his spiked-up hair for a “Clark Kent” look. One job seeker wore fake glasses to look smarter. These folks used the knowledge that looks matter— sometimes a lot— to give themselves a competitive edge over others.
Where should we draw the line? Putting on some lipstick for an interview is a lot different than, say, weighing in weekly to keep your job.
The Borgata Hotel rather famously imposes weight restrictions on their cocktail waitresses. Any waiter or waitress gaining more than 7 percent of their body weight after hiring can face suspension. Unsurprisingly, the hotel was involved in a $70 million lawsuit between 2005 and 2008 over this policy. If you are concerned that you are being discriminated against based on appearance, there is some precedent for lodging a complaint. When Jennifer Portnick wanted to be a Jazzercize franchisee, she was denied based on her less-than-fit appearance. She lodged a complaint and the company changed the policy. Some states and cities have laws and ordinances that ban discrimination based on appearance, just as they ban discrimination based on race or gender. Check your local laws if you are concerned about discrimination, or consider contacting the company itself.
However, not all stories turn out as well as Ms. Portnick’s. Despite the Borgota’s lawsuit—resolved without public detail in 2008—their weigh-in policy remains in place. As employment lawyer Bill O’Brien says, “Employers are free to be unfair.”
What are your thoughts on appearance-based discrimination? What are reasonable requirements for employers to impose? Leave a comment below, or send me a tweet: @ithinkther4iamb