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Dublin: 10 °C Wednesday 25 May, 2016

Looks shouldn't matter, but they do. Especially when you're applying for a job

First impressions are the foundation for having an impact, writes Eoghan McDermott.

Eoghan McDermott

LOOKS MATTER. OF course they matter. They shouldn’t. But they do. We’re always told “don’t judge a book by its cover”, but we do precisely that.

All day. Everyday.

We hoover up bits of information conveyed by someone’s height, someone’s clothing, someone’s manner. We analyse them in nano seconds. And we make decisions about them – quick as lightning. We have to.

The capacity to make decisions quickly about new people, to answer that question: “Friend or foe?” is the strand in our DNA that, in Neanderthal times, decided whether we lived or died. Or procreated.

We don’t do it consciously. But we register quite subtle bits of information about each other all the time. First impressions are the foundation for having an impact. Some of them we can control. Some of them we can’t.

Height among CEOs

Take, for example, the issue of men and height. In the US population, about 14.5% of all men are six feet or over. Among CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, that number is 58%.

The University of Florida has found that for every extra inch of height a tall worker can expect to earn an extra $789 per year. So, with two equally skilled people, the one who is six inches taller can expect a pay difference of $5,000 or so.

None of that is fair on guys who are short. It’s just the reality.

And it’s not just height. A similar bias applies to women with blonde hair. In 2010, Queensland University studied 15,000 Caucasian women and found that blondes earn 7% more than women with any other hair colour. The difference in pay remained the same even when other factors such as height, weight and education were removed.

shutterstock_85126930 Source: Shutterstock/auremar

They weren’t able explain why blonde-haired women earn more, but found no other hair colour produced similar results.

The University of Messina set out to see if physical appearance played a part during the first stage of the hiring process. They sent out more than 11,000 CVs for 1,542 roles across Italy using the same resume and changing only first-name, last-name, address, and the photo.

The overall callback rate was 30%, but the researchers found that good looking women had a callback rate of 54% and handsome men 47%.

However, recently researchers from University College London’s School of Management found that men who are blessed with traditional good looks were considered competent but were less likely to be promoted by men as they are deemed a threat to their male rivals.

First impressions 

Either way, looks matter more than they should.

Unless you’re casting a model, choosing someone based on their looks is a daft and dangerous strategy. Firstly, you’re not getting the most skilled person for the role. For example the 29th US President Warren Harding, who is widely viewed as one of the worst US presidents, was chosen by Republicans because he looked ‘presidential’.

The other reason why it’s a dangerous strategy is staff morale. Once staff get a sniff of an unfair bias based on looks, or a similar irrelevancy, trust and respect is eroded.

Interestingly, some orchestras have begun to do auditions behind screens so to remove any gender bias. Similarly, Microsoft and Unilever in Mexico are testing this approach for the first three minutes of their interviews so first impressions are based only on what they hear.

shutterstock_211835152 Source: Shutterstock/baranq

Aside from having a screen at interviews what companies need to do is train their people how to interview and assess candidates objectively. From my experience of working with panels, they often don’t have a rashers what they’re doing. They don’t know what to ask, how to ask it, how to follow up, how to listen and most importantly how to assess a candidate.

This of course leads to their subjective preferences coming through. And the wrong candidate getting the job.

For candidates, there’s a piece of work too. As far as I know, you can’t make yourself taller and dying your hair blonde is pretty extreme. So what can you do?

The first is you shouldn’t have a photo on your CV. Unless you’re specifically asked for one, or are going for that modelling job, don’t bother. It’s irrelevant, and gives the recruiter an excuse to disqualify you.

shutterstock_3938923 Source: Shutterstock/Chiyacat

Secondly, you should turn up appropriately turned out for the job you’re going for.

Think about it. You probably wouldn’t turn up for a job in a bank in a pair of Crocs and a high-vis, nor would you turn up for a job in Top Shop dressed like you’re going for a job as an accountant.

The rule of thumb on clothes is simple. Don’t wear anything that’s louder than you are. Your competence should be louder than your clothes. That’s it. That’s all. Don’t wear something so self-expressive, that it sidelines you.

Most importantly however is that, whether you’re George Clooney or Gollum, you need to be completely prepared for the interview. Understand the role that you’re applying for, know the company that you’re applying to, anticipate the questions and have relevant specific achievements, examples and evidence to back up your case.

Practice it out loud and get comfortable saying it. And make it absolutely, and objectively clear that you’re the best person for job.

Failing that, dye your hair and wear heels.

Eoghan McDermott is a Director of The Communications Clinic and is Head of Training and Careers there. He is author of The Career Doctor. @EoghanMcDermott. 

Read: The yawn-inducing name of this EU-US trade deal is what makes it so dangerous>

Read: The meaningless buzzwords you should stop using on your CV right away>

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