Punk Rock! Does Your Appearance Matter at Work?

This is my tattoo:

The HR Fist of Justice

It’s pretty low-key, as far as tattoos go. And because of where it’s placed I can easily cover it up. I may be a rebel but I’m no fool. Despite greater acceptance in the workplace, there are employers who will not hire those that have tattoos, visible or otherwise. If I want to remain employable I have to remain cognizant of this. So none on my neck, at least until after I retire.

In my fashion retail days I once worked with a colleague that looked a lot like this guy (bonus points to those that correctly guess who this is–leave your answer in the comments section):

Image courtesy of Myspace

Considering his look, what role did you think he served in the company. Sales associate? Store Manager? Wrong on both counts. He was a District Manager, responsible for close to 1/2 a billion dollars in company assets. He came up through the ranks and showed that he had the skills to take on increased levels of responsibility. His appearance wasn’t a factor in his rise through the organization, just his performance. Imagine if it was a determining factor in his promotional opportunities. The company might have missed out on his potential.

His movement up to and including his DM position served two purposes. First, it highlighted what the company considered important (or not). Results and hard work trumped neck tattoos. The second  was that it highlighted to other employees that they could achieve something similar, again based on performance, not appearance. This is critical to note because the company in question prided itself on its ability to promote from within. They even had specific annual goals around this particular metric.

It’s interesting to note how, despite social changes and greater calls for flexibility in the workplace, that insisting on certain physical characteristics are still part of many organizations. And it’s questionable whether or not guidelines surrounding an employee’s appearance help an organization achieve performance goals. Strictly speaking, does wearing a tie (or pantyhose) lead to greater individual or organizational performance? Does shaving (face, legs, or other parts of your anatomy) have an impact on the bottom line? Probably not.

What many of these organizations will state in terms of an employee’s appearance is that it serves to reinforce a certain “look.” A consistency of appearance can serve to reinforce a brand’s position, a way of projecting outwardly what it represents. In the customer service industry (retail or otherwise) this is important. For example, many retailers convince you to buy their products by having employees wear it during their shift. They serve as living billboards, highlighting to the customer how an item or set of items may look on them.

Appearance guidelines also help to bind organizational members together. Much like the military has strict uniform guidelines denoting branch, rank, etc., companies use these guidelines to further reinforce a sense of belonging, organizational position (in terms of hierarchy), and rank. It’s part of what constitutes an organization’s culture, helping to enable people to work together.

It’s a slippery slope, however, between requiring that employees adhere to certain outward standards and bias. We all have them. Currently, one’s physical appearance is not considered a protected class nationally in  the United States. Only certain states and municipalities have statutes on the book covering this. That doesn’t mean organizations shouldn’t be mindful of individual and organizational bias. If we are to find, retain, and motivate our talent, we need to manage biases toward those that don’t reflect a company’s standard of professionalism. You could be missing out on untapped potential. You could also be sending the wrong signals to employees on what (and who) the company considers important.

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