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Video: Survey: Looks do count at work

By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 3/8/2007 1:10:01 PM ET 2007-03-08T18:10:01

Last year, Dr. Andrea "Andy" McGuire, vice president and chief medical officer for a large insurance company in Iowa, decided she wanted to run for lieutenant governor of the state.

The advice she got from a campaign manager? “Wear three-inch heels every day because you’ll look much more powerful.”

It’s all about image, says McGuire. She realized long ago she had to look the part and look good to make it in corporate America and beyond. “People judge you on how you look, whether we like it or not,” she laments.

McGuire may be onto something. At least her feelings jibe with the findings of the Elle/MSNBC.com Work & Power Survey when it comes to the attractiveness meter.

Good-looking bosses were found to be more competent, collaborative and better delegators than their less attractive counterparts, and most women believe they are judged in the workplace on the basis of their looks.

“Physical attractiveness creates a halo around a person,” said management psychologist Ken Siegel, summarizing a vast body of research. “We still place a premium on physical attractiveness as a mediator of other things, and we do not attribute favorable qualities to people we deem unattractive. It may even occur on an unconscious level.”

Good looks appeared significant to both men and women and the workplace. About 58 percent of female bosses who were rated as attractive got high marks for competence, compared with  41 percent of "average-looking" female bosses and only 23 percent of unattractive supervisors. Among people with male bosses, 61 percent who rated their supervisors as good-looking also found them competent, compared with 41 percent for the average types and 25 percent for those rated unattractive.

The one image issue where men and women differed sharply was in how they saw themselves judged in the workplace.

A large majority of women — 61 percent — said they thought men judged them on their looks and 54 percent said they were being judged on their body and weight. Work ethic and accomplishments came in third and fourth, followed by talent.

Men, on the other hand, were more likely to believe that women judge them in the workplace based on their work ethic (43 percent), or accomplishments (40 percent). Factors like talent, sense of humor and looks were lower on the list.

Based on our survey, men may be living in a state of delusion since appearance seems to play a big role in how subordinates perceive their bosses.

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So women may have an upper hand because they realize looks sell, says Siegal, and “men don’t realize it’s an important dynamic.”

“You’d be a fool if you didn’t use your looks to your advantage and make the most with what you’ve got,” he notes. “Do not pretend it doesn’t matter. It’s a huge part of life in the 21st century."

That means if you want to make it up the ladder of success, you better hope that your beauty is in the eye of all those beholders out there.

“Looking good equals good,” says Sandy Dumont, president of the Image Architect, a consulting firm.

She believes you can change your look and make people perceive you differently.

First off, she says, people need to kill casual day. “You never have the advantage when dressed casually," she said. "You look like you’re careless or have careless attitude.”

And a little grooming wouldn't hurt.

Dumont suggests people take care of their hair, skin, nails and teeth and make them as shiny, bright and clean as possible. “This is more about looking polished, which translates into professional-looking,” she adds.

She also advises dressing in bright colors that offer a contrast with your skin and hair color.

“I’m not talking Hollywood glamour,” she says. “I have never seen an unattractive person. The people that come to me have generally not yet learned how to make themselves look attractive.”

As for McGuire’s bid for lieutenant governor, the high heels didn’t end up getting her elected.

But the heels did have some benefits: “It was more about getting people to support you when they met you and the power aspect of looking them in the eye because you are (5 feet 9 inches) rather than a couple of inches shorter. You could tell it made a difference especially with men.”

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