Passed Over for Promotion? Appearance, Acceptance, and the Battle for Success

Passed Over for Promotion? Appearance, Acceptance, and the Battle for Success

Martin Yate, CPC

Sitting in the international departures lounge at New York’s JFK Airport, a courier for a major U.S. airline who was heading to London with important documents got into conversation with a career management expert. He couldn’t figure out why, despite a conscientious work ethic, loyalty, and a good attitude, he just couldn’t break into the company’s management program. The career management authority suggested for starters that he lose the diamond earring, but the courier replied that he had a right to wear it.

Of course, the courier had every right to his personal adornment. But by the same token, company management also had the right to protect the image that they felt would best serve the company.

Lady Gaga, insurance agent?

Most people are concerned about appearance and try to look good, but there’s a difference between dress that’s appropriate for a date and dress that’s appropriate for work in a professional environment. You may think Pink or Lady Gaga’s looks rock, but would you buy insurance from either of them?

In today’s more casual workplace, many people are confused between their personal dress preferences and unwritten and largely unspoken corporate dress and image codes. How you interpret workplace dress codes will have a distinct effect on your promotional opportunities.

Professional appearance

A recent national survey reported that, given equal competency in a job, considerations of appearance were most likely to make hiring managers skip over someone for promotion. Of special concern were:

  • Visible piercings and tattoos
  • Wrinkled/too casual clothes
  • Messy hair
  • Too much makeup
  • Chewed fingernails

Because criticisms of personal appearance beyond basic requirements are difficult to enforce and have lead to costly lawsuits, most companies don’t try to enforce their preferences in dress and image beyond vague minimums. This doesn’t mean that the least you can get away with is acceptable, or that “acceptable” will win you promotions.

For example, nail biting seems such a minor thing if you are a nail biter. However, nail biting continued into adulthood is viewed negatively and see to demonstrate anxiety. If you are seeking the increased responsibility and visibility that invariably go with a promotion, such expressions of anxiety do not encourage confidence.

Personal Grooming

Working in close proximity with others, as many of us do, means that personal hygiene is a critical factor in teamwork and productivity. Managers considering candidates for promotion will always be conscious of personal grooming issues, because they speak to a person’s self-image and because problems in this area can make that person difficult to work with. Managers are especially concerned about:

  • Bad breath
  • Body odor
  • Smoking odors
  • Too much cologne/perfume

Personal grooming and hygiene problems can affect anyone. They can be lifetime problems of which you have remained blissfully unaware, or can be brought on by stress, health, or lifestyle changes. Issues like bad breath and body odor are famously difficult for people to talk about, and because they are image factors that can negatively impact professional success, you need to re-examine them on a regular basis.

Promotional Opportunity

Depending on professional goals, some people might think that there can be different standards for dress and personal hygiene. That if you don’t have professional goals, then no effort beyond the minimum enforceable requirements is necessary. However, sending such a message is never good for job security, let alone promotional opportunity.

If, on the other hand, your professional goals include promotions and climbing the ladder of success, you will look to those on the rungs above you for guidance. You’ll notice how their dress and personal grooming combine to create a specific professional image, dress is restrained, clean cut, and aimed at causing the least offense to the greatest number of people, and that personal grooming supports this messaging.

The impact of dress and personal grooming on your career is significant, they help define the successful professional and are essential building blocks of professional image and make you a more desirable person to be around. This not only supports your promotional goals, it improves your job security.

Martin Yate, CPC, author of Knock 'em Dead: Secrets & Strategies for Success in an Uncertain World, is a New York Times and international bestseller of job search and career management books. He is the author of 11 job search and career management books published throughout the English speaking world and in over 50 foreign language editions. Over thirty years in career management, including stints as an international technology headhunter, head of HR for a publicly traded company and Director of Training and Development for an international employment services organization.  

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