If only she'd put the phone down and do some training, or something. Photo: Shutterstock

Thursday 28th April 2016

Vanity Unfair

Workers more concerned by looks than by ability, survey claims

The younger generation has only gone and done it. People over the age of thirty, look away now. Because the world has taken a terrible turn.

Research from BrightHR’s ‘It Pays To Play’ study has revealed that employees are twice as likely – that’s twice as likely – to rate the professionalism of their colleagues on their appearance rather than on their work ethic.

Of course, it’s those pesky young ’uns who are unbalancing the statistics. More than double the amount of young people (16 to 24) said looking the part was more important than ‘going above and beyond’ in terms of professional performance.

Those in the lowest wage bracket – £15,000 or under – were also most likely to estimate a colleague’s professionalism by their choice of clothes.

Those working in the legal sector placed a higher value on dressing well (63%) than respecting confidentiality (52%). Which possibly explains how those Mossack Fonseca leaks came about.

Maybe this is no more than we’d expect from the selfie generation. But is it a problem? What does it mean for HR? And most importantly – how much is your office dress sense affecting Brand You?

Basic error

Is it a problem? Yes, of course it’s a problem.

He’s well-dressed. But is he professional?

Judging people by their appearance is a basic error. Think about the people who dress well, but you wouldn’t want on your team. (Dracula, the Krays, Cruella de Vil.) Now think of those who are ‘interestingly’ dressed but offer a lot. (Mother Theresa, Columbo, Gandhi.) Point made, surely.

Follow this ‘appearance is all’ trajectory and before we know it we’ll be recruiting purely based on the way people look. We won’t be looking at LinkedIn for recruits, just swiping through Tinder. We might even find ourselves filtering out candidates by watching video interviews with the sound turned off. (Which we’d never do, right?)

William Shakespeare’s been dead 400 years, but even he knows the dangers in believing all glittery things must be golden. In his Macbeth, the doomed king Duncan ruminates that ‘There’s no art / To find the mind’s construction in the face’. In other words, if you think you can suss someone just by the way they look then you’re wrong, and before you know it you’ll be lying in a bed in Scotland with half a foot of cold dagger jammed into your back.

The war on error

So what can HR do to battle this superficiality?

Well, a few things. For a start, we can check our (un)conscious bias toward good-looking and well-dressed people when it comes to assessment. (As this report suggests, it does happen: an Israeli survey found that CVs featuring ‘attractive’ men were 50% more likely to progress than those featuring ‘plain’ men.)

Maybe we shouldn’t always pick the best-looking or nattiest-dressed characters to appear in our recruitment videos. We can also make sure that competencies are alive and well in our cultures, helping people to understand that progression and reward are down to more than whether or not your shoes are from Prada.

But let’s not go overboard. After all, being presentable is a massive requirement for many of us in the real working world.

Re-dressing the balance

You want to make sure your people dress appropriately for client meetings. And who, when it comes down it, wouldn’t rather have an aspirationally-dressed CEO with a smart hairstyle and a tan, rather than one who looks like they’ve been dragged through a board meeting backwards?

Labour Party members, you’d probably best skip over that last sentence.

Beauty and the Beast? JFK and LBJ

Speaking in Business Insider, Matthew Kohut, co-author of a book ‘Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential’, said, ‘There is evidence that attractive people are seen as more compelling. A person’s looks can have a blinding effect on our perceptions of them.’

People remember JFK with more fondness than they do Lyndon Johnson. And one might argue that the likes of Barack Obama, Marissa Mayer, Justin Trudeau and Peter Cheese owe a little of their success to their looks.

And perhaps there’s a base psychological need being addressed when we appreciate the attractiveness and style of our peers. It’s because we want to become part of a good-looking gang – deep down we equate good-looking with safety, happiness and healthy genes.

Dressed to impress?

But what about you? Is your dress sense propelling you forward or holding you back? Try our mini-quiz.


1. Where did you get the outfit you’re wearing right now?

a) Whistles – you often pop in on the way back from the gym

b) What, this old thing? You bought it from M&S years ago

c) Your Granny knitted it – it smells reassuringly of her room in the home


2. What’s your favourite thing in your wardrobe?

a) A Donna Karan suit that you pull out whenever you need to power-dress

b) A cheeky red leather jacket – it’s Primani, don’t you know

c) Millicent the Mouse, who’s made a nest in your pile of old knickers


3. When was your latest selfie?

a) Just now – you take about twenty every day

b) Last month – you’re too self-conscious to take them often

c) January 31st – you submit it whenever the HMRC tells you to


If you answered mostly A, you’re doing fine. Anything else, you might want to grab a Gen Zedder and get them to take you clothes shopping.

About the author

Andrew Baird

Andrew is the CEO of HRville. He is also Employer Brand Director of Blackbridge Communications, Editorial Director of Professionals in Law and an associate of The Smarty Train. Previously, he was the MD of TCS Advertising.