Overcoming first impressions in the workplace

A firm handshake or a sleek outfit can be the difference between getting a job promotion or not, or closing an important sales deal. However, in an era where self-expression is emerging as a way to differentiate oneself from the rest of the population, this can no longer continue. We, as a society, have to set aside our initial impressions of people as best we can.

Personal appearance in the professional workplace is something that hiring managers must be considering as younger people come into the workplace. One study by the American Society of Pediatrics found that a growing number of young people have tattoos and piercings.

People who have altered their body in some way often face criticism simply on whether their piercings or tattoos, or even the way they dress.

I recall one night in particular where I was out to dinner with some friends and I overheard a conversation at the table next to us. The couple seemed to enjoy their food, but could not get over the fact that their server had a tattoo of a tree on their forearm. That server also happened to be my step-sister. The couple debated over whether or not she was a drug user or not. Whether or not she was clean enough to work at a restaurant like this.

For the record, she is not a drug user. She’s in her second year of a master’s program at a world renowned university. But that apparently did not matter at the time to the couple next to me. They had already passed judgement on her, without understanding who she is as a person. It showed too. Not just in their conversation, but by what they left in a tip. It was not like she had given them bad service, but they felt it was necessary to leave almost no tip on a fairly hefty bill.

Appearance in the workplace goes much further than just what we might do to alter our bodies though. Having a discussion about appearance extends beyond the idea of tattoos or piercings.

The idea of appearance extends to things that aren’t simply physical  like names. I would be remiss to write this opinion piece without addressing the fact that hiring decisions, especially in the case of people of color, discriminates based on a type of appearance names.

In spite of what the late Justice Antonin Scalia said, racism is still alive and well in this country. A study by the National Bureau of Economics found that individuals with the same resume, but with, “very White sounding names” received 50 percent more callbacks to a job than those who had, “very African-American names.” People are often judged by prospective employers before even being seen, so adding another layer of potential discrimination based on how people look only further adds to the barriers people face in the workplace.

Women also face discrimination based on their appearance in the workplace. Just look at the way we as a society tackle candidates for the Office of the President. Women candidates are assessed on their likeability, or their outfit, or how their hair looks. This carries over into the workplace.

A recent article in Psychology Today detailed how female candidates are disproportionately judged for their appearance instead of their abilities. For instance, Serena Williams faced criticism after she was forced, because of a medical condition, to wear a black catsuit, instead of focusing on how good she was as a tennis player.

When it comes to hiring decisions, I won’t pretend that there are not some parameters that should be followed. Showing up to an interview at a bank wearing a beer T-shirt and cargo shorts with flip-flops will probably not get you the job. But showing up to that same interview with a tattoo shouldn’t be the difference maker in a hiring decision.

We can’t also pretend that professional appearance depends on whether or not someone has the money to purchase the most proper looking set of clothing. A well-tailored suit, which is often seen as required in most professional settings, can cost upwards of $700. At the current federal minimum wage (which hasn’t been raised since 2009) of $7.25 an hour, it takes about 96 hours to earn enough for a suit. That’s just one suit. Having the best tailored suit, the whitest shirt, or the nicest tie shouldn’t be a barrier in access to jobs in the workplace.

I am not saying that we should abolish any ideas on what is acceptable for the workplace, but we should reconsider those ideas. What one might consider to be a good practice can actually be rooted in racism, sexism and classism. It’s time that we, as a society, reconsider and update our views on professional appearance.