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Personal Appearance in The Workplace: Suggestions for Hiring Committees

Jan 27, 2023
Women of different ethnicities and/or nationalities at work


If you will recall, a couple of years ago Colin Kaepernick was having problems being drafted.

There were two theories circulating at the time. One was that his political stance of refusing to stand for the playing of the national anthem was the culprit. Kaepernick was, in fact, protesting what he deemed were wrongdoings against African Americans and other marginalized groups in the United States. 

The other theory had to do with his appearance. In fact, Michael Vick, former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback, went as far as saying that, in order to be taken seriously enough to land a spot on an NFL team, Kaepernick needed to look more presentable. According to Vick, Kaepernick needed a haircut. 

Since when does the way you look has anything to do with the way you perform? 


Expectations to Conform

 Workplaces today are becoming increasingly more diverse and one of the issues many diverse employees face is the expectation they need to conform to established workplace norms.

Despite increased diversity, many employees are expected to conform to norms they don’t subscribe to. So, instead of putting their efforts into “thriving,” much of their energy is spent on “surviving” within the company

Hiring committees need to understand the “cultural programming” every employee brings to the workplace.

How close we stand to someone, whether or not we maintain eye contact with a supervisor, how we handle conflict, how we respond to stress, and how we communicate are all determined by our cultural programming. Personal appearance is also dictated by our cultural programming.


Personal Appearance in The Workplace

 How many times have we been told not to judge a book by its cover? Yet, how many snap judgments do we make about potential candidates simply based on their appearance?

How would you judge a candidate who came for her interview in a bright silk dress and lots of jewelry, as opposed to the traditional/expected dark suit? Does her wardrobe choice have anything to do with her ability to perform?

Could search committees, either consciously or unconsciously, be discounting qualified applicants because of their personal appearance? There are many factors that dictate what candidates wear and cultural programming is a significant one. 

Hair is another hot spot as far as appearance goes since there are many variations on what is appropriate or acceptable.

Hindus, for example, believe their hair should never be cut and men often wrap their heads in a turban. Orthodox Jewish men wear dreadlocks. Muslim women wear a hijab in the presence of adult males outside of their immediate family. 

Sometimes, a hairstyle is chosen to make a statement. In the ’60s, for example, Afros were used to send a message that “Black is beautiful.” Sinead O’Connor, an Irish singer-songwriter, shaved her head to draw attention to her political protests.

The problem is that someone’s hair or hairstyle can trigger an unconscious bias or some kind of assumption. In a study released by the Perception Institute on explicit and implicit attitudes toward black women’s hair, the authors revealed that even though more black women are embracing natural hairstyles, biases toward natural hair continue to exist, especially in the workplace.

Many of the respondents felt that natural hairstyles are not professional. Even more worrisome is the fact that in September 2016, a federal court ruled that companies can fire people just for having dreadlocks. In a 3-0 decision, the 11th U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Catastrophe Management Solutions, an insurance claims processing company in Alabama that requires all employees to project “a professional and businesslike image.” 

The company’s decision not to hire a Black woman because she had dreadlocks was sustained. Dreadlocks, as many know, are a manner of wearing hair that is physiologically and culturally associated with people of African descent. A White hiring manager told the candidate she could have the job if she changed her hairstyle.

In the end, the court asserted that it is legal for companies to refuse employment based on hairstyles. One must ask ourselves: Why should employers have the right to strip individuals of the option to wear whatever hairstyle they chose?


Three Essential Strategies for Bringing Diversity In and Creating Inclusive Workplace Environments


1.    Recognize the Impact of Cultural Programming on the Candidate

When evaluating a potential candidate, hiring managers need to understand that a candidate’s cultural programming, individual personality, as well as their degree of acculturation to the U.S. mainstream culture all need to be taken into consideration.

For example, mainstream norms dictate individuals maintain eye contact when speaking. However, hiring committees also need to consider that (a) some individuals may be shy and therefore prefer to avert their eyes or (b) certain cultural orientations dictate you should not maintain direct eye contact, especially when speaking with someone in a position of authority. Neither the former nor the latter relate to competence or ability to perform. 


2.    “Dress for Success” Carry Different Connotations

With regard to dress and appearance, it is important hiring committees understand that the notion of “dress for success” carries different connotations for different individuals. 

It could mean a shirt and tie for some while, for others, a dashiki. So, before reacting to a candidate’s appearance, consider the meaning the candidate attaches to appearance and what their cultural norm dictates regarding dress and appearance. 

As a hiring manager, you need to be able to identify any areas where differences in programming and expectations may cause a potential conflict and use that information to help you bridge those cultural barriers.

You need to know when a candidate’s behavior and appearance need to be interpreted differently, and you need to strive to create an environment where diverse norms (yours, the company’s, and the candidate’s) can coexist. 


3.    Remember We All Approach Situations from an Ethnocentric Perspective

Ethnocentrism is one of the main saboteurs of diversity and inclusion. When looking at other cultural norms, it is easy to make judgments about those norms that are different from our own. 

Cultural comparisons are natural. But judging someone’s norms in a less favorable light is a problem and it comes from a place of ethnocentrism.

You need to get rid of the “my way is the best way” attitude and recognize that all cultural norms have advantages and disadvantages. 

Smart leaders do know the value of truly inclusive organizations and strive to create an environment where employees are accepted and valued for what they can contribute, regardless of lifestyle variations, and variety in dress and grooming.


👉 Research shows most organizations are failing at implementing effective DEI initiatives. If you want to explore ways to make DEI sustainable and part of your organization’s DNA, let’s chat. Whether or not we decide to work together, I am confident that our call will be full of insights and actionable steps that can help you implement successful DEI strategies.

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