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Mirror, Mirror: Image and Appearance in the Work Place

Posted At: April 23, 2012 3:00 PM
by Ashley McDaniel

Be yourself. Stand out. Be different. As we enter into the work place, we are constantly reminded of how important these tips are when trying to land that first job. Some millennials have embraced their own style through numerous piercings, detailed tattoos and flamboyant hairstyles. But how far does creativity and individuality go when interviewing and actually working for the first job?

Having a certain memorable uniqueness gives interviewees an edge over others. It is usually a vivid personality, lively spirit or even an interesting fact. However, with the recent emphasis of self-expression, new graduates are facing an obstacle they have built themselves. The manicured and polished look society has defined as appropriate for entry-level hopefuls has almost instilled a silent fear within. How drastic can one’s literal image and appearance vary from interview to day one on the job?

Martyn Jackson, general manager of Butterfly World, thinks the PR profession has a more conservative and orthodox perception of image in the workplace.

“Image is paramount in the work place. Before you even say hello to someone, they see how you look, if your hair is clean, if your clothes have stains on them,” Jackson said. “I’m not saying it’s always fair, but that’s the way it is in business, especially if you want to climb the corporate ladder.”

With this in mind, there have been numerous debates on whether pay wages and longevity in a company are influenced by personal image. A USA Today article discussed how many CEOs have a certain “look” that may not be required but is quite consistent throughout many Fortune 500 companies. Although a recent college graduate looking for an entry-level job may have more time to worry about this, could their own self-expression and individuality hinder them from making the first step toward success?

Image and appearance go hand in hand when determining who represents a company or who even gets the job. The competitiveness of the public relations industry is one that is becoming more intense and almost a fight to the death. A vivid personality and lively spirit are almost necessities in this field. They have both become embedded within young PR professionals but are so common that we are now frantically going to other measures, more literal and physical, to have some distinction.

As cited by Matt Sharritt, Erving Goffman, a sociologist known for his analysis of human interaction, studied the relationship between positive and negative face values and everyday life. Goffman theorized that the human face has two counterparts: positive face and negative face. He stated the positive face needs to look good and be likeable, which is derived from cultural norms. In contrast, the negative face needs to be free and have an open schedule. It thrives off its ability to have freedom from imposition by others.

Putting the best face forward can play a huge role in the work place; some have experienced the repercussions from not doing so firsthand. There have been countless discrimination lawsuits for appearance-based claims. A blog post from the California Public Agency Law and Employment Center notes an array of lawsuits ranging from not meeting weight requirements to being too attractive. These lawsuits have sparked much debate on whether people can truly be themselves while working.

Brian Feldman, senior partner and general manager of Allison + Partners, discussed how your image must fit into a company. In addition to this, Feldman explained how within his Atlanta based PR firm, individuality and self expression are embraced.

“If you convey a style and image that doesn’t fit with a particular company then it probably wasn’t a good fit anyway,” stated Feldman. “Image implies that someone is creating a façade and they wouldn’t last here very long doing that. Appearance varies. But people are free to express themselves — this is not a traditional big PR firm setting.”

A tailored suit, conservative hair and non-visible tattoos are what our culture has conjured up as the ideal employee, contrary to the repetitive suggestion of being yourself and standing out from the crowd. From the first interview to the first day out in the field, image and appearance may  not only serve as conversation starters but also influence longevity within a company. Just always remember: the first impression is a lasting impression.


  1. Post comment

    In today’s job search, the look of a possible new hire can make or break the first impression and this article certainly does a fine job of outlining society’s ideal image for those on the hunt for new employment. The idea of a potential employee dismissing your application due to a hint of individuality is a scary thought. However, If you are after a job in a field you are passionate about, then chances are you have probably adopted the style and sometimes the personality that goes along with it as well. Along with that, businesses often look for new employees that share a similar mindset in order to continue a fluid workflow. If you are both operating on the same wave lengths, then chances are good that a potential employer may not see your flare of individuality as a red flag, but instead as an idea worth a second look.

  2. Post comment

    I think there needs to be a distinction between “being yourself” and being disrespectful. If you show up to a job interview dressed like you’re going to the bar- that’s disrespectful. If you like colors and eclectic jewelry- that’s being yourself. I think this is where it’s important to do your research on the places you apply. Different companies have different atmospheres and different values they want to portray to the public. On the topic of tattoos and piercings, I think now they are becoming more commonplace, and with that we will see a larger spectrum of companies that embrace this expression and those who don’t. All in all, I think this article succeeds in getting opinions from all sides but it is rather vague as to what type of expression/individuality we’re talking about (i.e., piercings/tattoos or funky haircuts/clothing).

  3. Post comment

    I really enjoyed this article, and self image is an important issue for graduating students.

    I think that while individualism should be encouraged, students have to know that when they personalize their looks in more extreme ways they are putting themselves at risk of losing opportunities. While it may not be a good thing that people are judged based upon their image, it’s not something that can be regulated.
    We should recognize that as public relations professionals, our goal is to communicate our message to our key publics. In order to do this, we must present ourselves in a way that inspires these publics’ trust.


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