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Do Our Looks Affect Our Livelihoods?

I think we always knew it was the case, but now it’s confirmed. Yes, the workplace is a beauty contest. And there’s a lot of research to back that uncomfortable reality up: attractive people get hired over those less so. To add insult to injury, beautiful people get paid more, too!

Two prominent economists, Markus Mobius of Harvard and Tanya Rosenblat of Wesleyan, proved this in a research study based on a mock labor market where students played employers and job seekers. Their job was to solve mazes. The job seekers filled out a résumé and were given a simple maze to solve. To measure self-confidence, job applicants were asked to estimate how many mazes they could solve in fifteen minutes.

What the researchers did next was to have each employer hire a small number of job applicants. Some employers only considered the résumé of potential employees. Others saw a résumé and photograph. Some saw a résumé and had a telephone interview. Others received a résumé, a telephone interview, and a photograph. The last group saw the whole nine yards: résumé, a telephone and an in-person interview.

Guess what: those with good looks were no better at solving mazes than less attractive people were (whew!).

Yet when employers saw a picture or met the job applicant, the beauty premium kicked in. Attractive people got the jobs, the bigger salaries, and received higher expectations. Also, both male and female employers had the beauty bias (not only men are looking to hire babes).

So, while we may not like it, image makes a difference in how we are perceived. Our success in the workplace, as in life, is based on creating positive impressions about ourselves. That’s why we have to take image seriously.

Looks have a halo effect. That’s why marketers are into packaging and design. And we need to create a look that shows each of us to advantage so people assume that we have positive attributes, too: that we’re smart, productive and right for the job.

Even if you aren’t ready to strut down the runway (neither am I), you can create an attractive image. Here are five tips from my new book, U R a Brand, How Smart People Brand Themselves for Business Success, recipient of the Ben Franklin award for best career book 2007:

1. Package yourself.
Brand managers pay a lot of attention to packaging. You should too, since visual impressions are powerful. We are pegged in a matter of seconds: good/bad, hire/don’t hire, successful/loser. It all happens in the first few seconds. It’s based on snap visual impressions, like your clothes and how you look. Of course, clothes won’t make a difference in how well you do your job, yet they will have a significant effect on how you are perceived on the job. Clothes are a quick read and one of the easiest ways to communicate a message about who you are.

2. Emphasize an unusual or different feature.
Today, interesting-looking people are attractive. After all, you don’t want to look like everyone else. You are an original and want your own vibe. Having different looks can be very effective in building a powerful and attractive image. Think how Barbra Streisand, Andy Warhol, and Arnold Schwarzenegger all dramatized their unusual looks, features or shape.

3. Have a trademark.
Developing a signature item as a trademark is smart personal branding that will set you apart from the crowd. You’re creating a branded element that identifies you like a logo on a product. Chosen well, it will convey a brand message to others and even change the way you see yourself. Larry King has his suspenders; Jackie Kennedy had her pillbox hats and then her oversize sunglasses; Steve Jobs has his jeans; Bono has his tinted wraparound glasses.

4. Don’t neglect your hair.
Hair is a terrific device for building a powerful visual identity. Think of Dolly Parton vs. Laura Bush. Don King vs. Dr. Phil. Donald Trump’s hair has become as much a trademark of his visual identity as his trophy wife and oversize yacht. Even the lack of hair can be attractive if you fully shave your head to accentuate the shape and silhouette.

5. Focus on “soft power.”
One thing to think about is executive presence. How do you enter a room? Do you stand tall and walk purposefully? Or do you slouch and look distracted? Another aspect of executive presence is comportment—your way of conducting yourself in interacting with others. Comportment is knowledge of how to behave in expected and unexpected situations regardless of how many eyes are on you.

By Catherine Kaputa for DamselsinSuccess 

Updated on September 19, 2010