In business, do looks matter? Really?

When I was introduced to a man at a business meeting, I felt shocked. As I shook his hand, I stared into the face of an infamous serial killer.

The man wasn’t really a mass murderer. Unfortunately, he looked exactly like him.

As the man spoke to me, I tried to listen. Really. But I couldn’t. I felt distracted.

After a few minutes, I also couldn’t help but feel annoyed. The man didn’t have to look like a criminal: he chose to look that way. With a  few subtle hair, wardrobe, and grooming alterations — he wouldn’t look horrifying at all.

present yourselfphoto by Henry Spencer

Whether you like it or not, your appearance matters. People judge you based on how you choose to present yourself.

Our personal grooming, fashion, and style choices perform three basic functions:

  1. The first is health related. We dress to protect our bodies from the elements. We shower and wash ourselves to prevent disease and stay healthy.
  2. The second function is to express our individuality. We make hair, makeup, jewelry, and wardrobe choices that express our unique senses of style.
  3. The third is to show respect for the people around us. Our personal grooming and fashion choices send signals about how much we care about connecting with others socially.

For many young people, finding an appropriate balance between these three functions can be challenging. Worse, merely talking about function #3 can make many people — even middle-aged professionals — hotly defensive.

To be clear: when I say “looks matter”, I don’t mean the genetic or accidental stuff that you can’t help. Rather, I’m talking about the way you choose to present yourself: hair, nails, clothing, makeup, jewelry, body art & language, facial gestures, etc.

Quite a few young people I’ve interacted with lately haven’t grasped the importance of the third function. To them, their personal style choices are just that: personal. You can recognize an adolescent mindset towards personal style by three verbal brands:

  • I look the way I look. If other people don’t like it, well, that’s their problem!
  • People shouldn’t judge others on how they look. It’s wrong. I never do that.
  • Good hygiene and personal comfort are all that really all that count.

These views reveal a curious blend of self-righteous hostility, naive idealism, and low-level carelessness. When I hear it from a teenager, I’m not surprised. But when I hear these statements from mid-career professionals?

Wow. What a disconnect! I can’t believe I have to say this, but — a professional look that worked for you twenty years ago may not be serving you very well today! Your body, face, and hair have changed. Styles change. Social mores change. You need to be open to discussing changes in your personal style, too.

How you present yourself matters. People will judge you on the way you look. You can command or lose respect with your personal presentation choices.

You may not like this. You may wish that as humans, we were more highly evolved. Less judgmental. Less superficial.

And as much as you may like to believe that you don’t judge others based on their appearance — you do. You can’t help it. To claim otherwise sends the perception of self-delusion or self-righteousness.

I can understand why this concept of “looks matter” can be a difficult and disappointing realization for a naive young person. But honestly — why is this concept so difficult for many mid-career professionals?

When have you ever encountered a professional situation where how you presented yourself didn’t matter?