Years ago I worked on the shop floor of a manufacturing plant. I had worked my way through school at another plant so I definitely identified more with the hourly workers than the “suits.” (Even though most of the guys referred to me as “college boy.”)
One day the department manager stopped by. He asked about my background. He asked about my education. He asked about my career aspirations.
“I’d like to be a supervisor,” I answered, “and then someday I’d like your job.”
He smiled and said, “Good for you. I like a guy with dreams.” Then he paused.
“But if that’s what you really want,” he said, looking me in the eyes, “first you need to start looking the part.”
I knew what he was saying but decided to play dumb. “What do you mean?” I asked.
“Look around,” he said. “How do supervisors dress? How does their hair look? How do they act? No one will think of you as supervisor material until they can actually see you as a supervisor — and right now you look nothing like a supervisor.”
He was right. I was wearing ratty jeans with a couple of holes. (Why wouldn’t I? I worked around oil and grease all day.) I was wearing a cut-off t-shirt. (Why wouldn’t I? It was the middle of the summer and the air wheezing through the overhead vents was far from conditioned.) And my hair was pretty long, even for the day.
“But shouldn’t how well I do my job matter more than how I look?” I asked.
“In a perfect world your performance is all that would matter,” he said. “But we don’t live in a perfect world. Take my advice: if you want to be promoted into a certain position… make sure you look like the people in that position.”
I’ve thought about that conversation a lot over the years.
I’ve hired and promoted people who looked the part… and they turned out to be all show and no go. I’ve hired and promoted people who didn’t look the part at all… and they turned out to be superstars. I’m convinced that how you look and, at least to a large degree how you act, has nothing to do with your skill and talent and fit for a job.
Still, he’s right: the world isn’t perfect. People still make assumptions about us based on irrelevant things like clothing and mannerisms… and height and weight and age and gender and ethnicity and tons of other qualities and attributes that have absolutely no bearing on a person’s performance.
So are you better off trying to conform?
Unfortunately, probably so. The people doing the hiring and promoting are people — and people tend to be biased towards the comfortable and the familiar. People tend to hire and promote people who are much like themselves. (If you remind me of me… then you must be awesome, right?)
Besides, highly diverse teams are like unicorns — we all know what one should look like, but unless you’re NPH you rarely encounter one in the wild.
And don’t forget that hiring or promoting someone who conforms, even if only in dress and deportment, makes a high percentage of the people making those decisions feel like they’re taking a little bit less of a risk. I know I was viewed — admittedly with good reason — as a wild card, and I’m sure that impacted my promotability.
But still: are you better off being yourself and trusting that people will value your skills, experience, talent… and uniqueness?
Sadly I think that’s a move fraught with professional peril. If your goal is to get hired or promoted then expressing your individuality could make that goal much harder to accomplish. (Of course if being yourself in all ways is what is most important to you, by all means let your freak flag fly. Seriously.)
I have no way of knowing for sure, but changing how I dressed — and in a larger sense, tempering some of the attitude I displayed — would likely have helped me get promoted sooner. For a long time I didn’t look the part, didn’t act the part… and I’m sure that made me a less attractive candidate.