My first job after college was working as a shop-floor manufacturing employee. Even though I was eager to advance, I had worked my way through college at another plant and identified more with my co-workers than with the suits.
One day, the department manager asked about my career aspirations.
"I'd like to be a supervisor," I said. "And, someday, I'd like your job."
"If that's what you really want," he said, looking me over, "you need to look the part."
I was wearing ratty jeans; I worked around oil and grease all day. I was wearing a cutoff T-shirt; it was the middle of the summer and the air was far from conditioned. My hair was long, even for the times.
Still, I worked hard and had steadily risen up the hourly ranks.
"If you want to be promoted into a certain position," he said as he stalked away, "make sure you look like the people already in that position."
While his perspective was wrong, in practical terms, he was right. I didn't look the part. I didn't act the part. I didn't play golf with the supervisors, go drinking after work with the supervisors, or sit around in their offices and schmooze them up.
For those reasons, and surely more, the plant's supervisors and managers couldn't picture me as one of them. They assumed things about me on the basis of qualities and attributes that had absolutely no bearing on my performance.
Eventually I did get promoted -- and eventually leapfrogged many of them -- but had I changed how I looked and acted, and schmoozed a little more, I probably would have become a supervisor much sooner.
That was 30 years ago.
Fortunately, times have changed. Today, performance is all that matters.
A recent Harvard study shows that schmoozing with your boss can still help you get a promotion or a raise.
As long as you're a man, and you work for a man. If you're a woman, schmoozing a male boss won't help you, and female bosses don't reward schmoozing -- by men or women.
The researchers suggest the difference in outcomes lies in the fact that men can more easily schmooze than women with higher-ranking men. Four out of five women say they feel excluded from relationship-building at work. Many say they aren't able to participate in formal or informal afterwork activities and gatherings.
And then there's this: The researchers found that when a male employee who smoked started working for a male manager who smoked, the two tended to spend time together taking smoke breaks -- and the male employee was much more likely to be promoted than a nonsmoker.
Sharing that activity -- by extension, sharing any activity or interest -- results in regular opportunities for face time.
And a greater likelihood of advancement.
All of which is a huge problem.
People doing the hiring and promoting are people, and people tend to be biased toward the comfortable and the familiar. We tend to hire and promote people who are like us. (If you remind me of me, then you must be awesome, right?)
Plus, hiring or promoting someone who fits a certain mold, even if only in dress and deportment, makes many people who make those decisions feel they're taking less of a risk. (It's harder to be criticized when you make what others see as a "conventional" choice.)
I know I was viewed, admittedly with good reason, as a wild card, and I'm sure that impacted my promotability. And had I been a woman, getting promoted would have been almost impossible. (Over the 20 years I worked there, only two women became manufacturing supervisors, and neither reached the manager level.)
Even though, as I later proved, I was an outstanding candidate.
And even though there were plenty of great female candidates: women who not only would have been great leaders, but who also would have promoted and paid other people on the basis of their performance -- not on how well they schmoozed.
Maybe things will eventually change. The rise in remote work should help level the playing field, if only because virtual schmoozing is a lot less convenient. (And, hopefully, less effective.)
But that would be an artificial change.
The only fair approach to pay and promotions -- and hiring -- is the objective approach.
Take gender out of the equation. Take ethnicity out of the equation. Take hair and clothing and outside interests and "fitting in" and all the other irrelevant qualities and attributes out of the equation.
Promote the person who will do the best job. Give raises to the people who do the best job. Hire the people who will do the best job.
People who schmooze may make you feel more comfortable, but where business is concerned, the greatest comfort always lies in results.
And in knowing you made people decisions for the right reasons.