The importance of self-presentation

Posted 13 September 2011 by

Recently I have listened to a number of discussions and read a few articles about the impact of a person’s physical appearance on their experiences at work. A number of related themes cropped up, but they all shared the same broad subject area.

One discussion on the radio was prompted by a remark made by Ruth Lea, director and economic adviser at the Arbuthnot Banking Group, that she had never experienced discrimination because of her gender and that, in fact, her gender has been useful to her. She didn’t reveal exactly what she meant by this final point but in a follow-up discussion, Dr Catherine Hakim, a sociologist from the London School of Economics, commented on how beneficial physical and social attractiveness is to everyone in their social and work life. Whilst we might expect attractiveness to be particularly important in industries such as entertainment, it may come as a surprise to some to learn of the scale of its impact in the wider business world.

For example, attractive people are often perceived as being more persuasive. Correspondingly, attractive lawyers tend to win a disproportionately high number of cases. Perhaps this isn’t surprising, but the implications could be very troubling. Now, I’ve known for a long time that good-looking people tend to do better in life, and that height can also have a bearing on success. However, when Dr Hakim went on to claim that attractiveness has an impact on income levels that is equal to the impact of qualifications, I was shocked!

Another topic that has cropped up is discrimination on the basis of physical appearance. Some people have been on the receiving end of terribly cruel and hurtful remarks at work, purely as a result of their appearance. Even people who ensure that they are well groomed and presented at work can fall victim to this. This has led some people to suggest that the government should legislate against unfair discrimination on the basis of looks. This will no doubt prompt some debate, not least by those who question whether this issue is really comparable to things such as gender or ethnic equality.

There is clearly a lot for HR practitioners and employers to consider, and the issues are very real in that they will continue to affect the working life experiences of many people. So, what can we all do now to ensure we are sensitive to the issue?

Firstly, regardless of gender, I think it’s important for people to realise that throughout life they will be judged by what they look like, as well as how they act. Like it or not, this is a fact. With this in mind, we all have a responsibility to ourselves to consider the image we present to others, both physically and socially. We can’t all be blessed with exceptional good looks, but we can take steps to ensure we come across well to others. Reliance on qualifications alone is not enough.

Beyond this, we all have a responsibility to ensure that others are not treated unfairly or indeed discriminated against because of their appearance. This is both a moral obligation and also a pragmatic course of action. It may be that by unfairly discriminating against someone this way, an individual is doing their organisation a disservice by rejecting the person who is best positioned to deliver excellence.

However, there is a risk of contradiction here: recognising on the one hand that physical appearance does have a bearing on how people are judged, and advising people to take account of this when presenting themselves, whilst at the same time doing our utmost to ensure people are not treated unfairly on the basis of their appearance. So, how do we reconcile this? This is a challenge that I think needs wider consideration…

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