My first job out of college was on the shop floor of a manufacturing plant. I had worked my way through college 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 manager of the department stopped by to chat. 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." (Yeah, I was kinda cocky.)
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 to make sure I paid attention, "you first need to look 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 the supervisors dress? How does their hair look? How do they act? No one will ever 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. (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 any air wheezing through the overhead vents was far from conditioned.) My hair was definitely long, even for the day. But I worked hard and already a number of (hourly level) promotions to show for it.
"But shouldn't how well I do my job matter more than the way 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 already 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. How you look, and at least to some degree how you act, has nothing to do with your skill, talent, or fit for a job.
Still, he was right: The world isn't perfect. People assume things about us based on irrelevant things like our clothing and our mannerisms... and our height and weight and age and gender and ethnicity... and plenty of other qualities and attributes that, unlike these things, have absolutely no bearing on our performance.
So: With all that in mind, 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?)
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 you may still believe that being yourself -- and trusting that people will value your skills, experience, talent, and uniqueness -- is the better, more authentic way to go.
Sadly, I think that's a move fraught with professional peril. If your goal is to get hired or promoted, then fully 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 a lot sooner. For a long time I didn't look the part, I didn't act the part... and I am positive that made me a less attractive candidate.
But that's just what I think; what's more interesting is what you think about fitting in and conforming.
How has the way you look or dress affected your career?