10 things that can unexpectedly ruin your career

From dress sense to hairstyles... Here are 10 things that shouldn't kill your career prospects, but often do.

by Rhymer Rigby
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

It would be nice to think that all managers viewed all staff as equal and judged only on results, but this is far from the case. There are still plenty of small ways in which people discriminate, even if many of the worst prejudices, such as sexism, racism and homophobia, are now strictly policed and have become comparatively rare. Some are apparently trivial - can you discriminate against a poor dress sense? Or visible piercings? Should you? What about accents, beards or baldness? Others are more important - religious or political views, weight and the kind of polish that a good background and a posh education give you.

Most of these lesser workplace stereotypes, says professor Cary Cooper of Lancaster University School of Management, are well documented in academic research: 'How would you react to someone who is obese - or a woman in bright red lipstick and a very short skirt? These are all non-verbal cues and shouldn't affect your judgment. But they do.'

Many of them also involve a degree of self-deception - that is, you chose not to promote the salesman, not because he was fat and ugly, but because you believed his thinner colleague had a better manner. Which is really deniable shorthand for 'he's obese and unattractive'.

With such double-think in mind, MT takes a look at 10 factors that shouldn't really hold back your career - but do.

Dress sense

Personal branding consultant Louise Mowbray says she often deals with men who've suddenly realised that part of what is holding them back 'could be that they've been wearing the same suit for 10 years'. This doesn't mean that you have to buy new clothes every three months, but it does mean you should aim to look businesslike and contemporary - and appropriate dress could mean a hip T-shirt and skinny jeans in an ad agency and a conservative suit at a law firm. If you can pull it off, there's something to be said for iconoclasm too - Google's Vint Cerf is legendary for his tailored three-piece suits in a firm where jeans are the norm.

Appearance

More good news for the good-looking. A recent piece of research at the University of Florida showed that good-looking people really do earn more and go further - and that they might well be worth it. 'Little is known about why there are income disparities between the good-looking and the not-so-good-looking,' says author Timothy Judge. 'Even accounting for intelligence, a person's feeling of self-worth is enhanced by how attractive they are and this, in turn, results in higher pay.'

Perhaps Abercrombie & Fitch's controversial CEO Mike Jeffries was just articulating what the rest of unconsciously think when he said: 'We hire good-looking people in our stores. Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don't market to anyone other than that.'

Body modification

Things start to get even more interesting when you consider how people accessorise their innate looks, good or bad. Tattoos and piercings have caused trouble in a number of high-profile cases. The highly tattooed Rebecca Holdcroft memorably fell out with her employers in 2006 when they told her to cover her totally tattooed arms and back; she cried discrimination but was advised that there was no law to protect her. For similar reasons, many US companies have started incorporating body art sections into their dress codes, just in case Randy in sales pitches up one Monday morning with a huge silver ring through his nose.

Still, the UK is now a heavily tattooed nation (and 40% of Americans between the ages of 26 and 40 have one), so it's hard to believe that a little ink, unless on prominent display or highly offensive, will hold you back.

Accent

Here, at last, there is good news for egalitarians. The influence of accent on your career is undoubtedly waning, and the days when the plummy tones of BBC English were the only right way to speak are long gone. But do accents still matter? Yes, but the results are mixed. Various surveys have shown that a 'posh' accent can be a hindrance to being taken seriously, that a south-east accent is the best one to get ahead in finance, that regional accents are considered more trustworthy and that young staff modify their accents when talking to their seniors. Perhaps the overall message is that, in almost any business, it is an advantage to be a clear communicator. In the case of certain strong accents that non-speakers struggle with (such as Geordie and Glaswegian), this may mean toning things down. 'These days,' says Cooper at Lancaster business school, 'the effect your accent has on your career is quite subtle.'

Education

The impact of education on your career in this context boils down not to the question 'Should people with good qualifications get good jobs?' but to 'Do people from privileged backgrounds, educated mostly in private schools, have an advantage over their more talented peers from poorer backgrounds?' The answer is not hard to find - 75% of judges and 45% of senior civil servants were privately educated and nearly half of Oxbridge admissions are drawn from the 7% of the UK educated at private schools. A July 2009 report by Alan Milburn MP on access to the professions was damning about how these professions were becoming a closed shop. In many ways, this is tied up with family expectations, and education at a top school prepares you not just for a better career but for a better life. Those from bog-standard comprehensives can thrive in roles like these, but they have have to work twice as hard to get to the same place.

Parentage

Anyone who believes that family connections have no effect on career clearly missed the previous US presidency. Similarly, you might wish to ponder (though not for long) whether James Murdoch would have become CEO of BSkyB in his early thirties were it not for Murdoch pere, or if Stella McCartney really was the most talented student on her fashion course at St Martins art school. It's not just at this level either, but right the way down into the professions and, indeed, in all walks of life. Often, family connections 'just open a door others didn't know was there', says Corrinne Mills, MD of Personal Career Management. 'You still have to be good at your job, but you do get that initial "in" that others don't.' Even so, those who benefit from nepotism can find themselves in a difficult and insecure place - in terms of both their belief in their abilities and their relationships with colleagues.

Height

Rather wonderfully, the height premium has been quantified with impressive exactitude by Arianne Cohen, author of The Tall Book (Bloomsbury). She says 'tall people bring home a lot more bacon than short people, to the tune of $789 more per inch per year.' We are, it would seem, hardwired to look up to tall people, metaphorically as well as literally. Cohen notes that among the CEOs of the 50 largest US corporations, 29% are over six-foot-three - a distinction shared by a mere 2% of US men. As with good looks, confidence plays a large part (and, to some extent, you can train yourself to walk tall). Nonetheless, it's worth noting that many shorter CEOs, such as Warren Buffett, Ross Perot and Bill Gates, didn't rise through the ranks - they founded their own companies.

Hair

'Hair's quite a big thing in your career,' says Mills. 'It's not just about being neat and tidy; it also needs to be up-to-date. When someone has been in a job for a long time, you often see that they haven't really updated their hairstyle - they don't look bad, they just look a bit fuddy-duddy. I'd say that changing your hair with fashion is a way to ensure you look contemporary.' For men, there are the further complications of baldness and beard-wearing. For the balding, the advice is simple - keep it short and it needn't affect your career much (think William Hague). The beard issue is, however, stranger: beards are vanishingly rare in business, and the men who wear them tend to be mavericks, such as Richard Branson, Alan Sugar, Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison. Style guru Peter York says that the ultra-groomed modern American ideal of business success means that the beard is unlikely to stage a mainstream comeback.

Weight

A survey last year by the Rudd Centre for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University showed that discrimination against overweight people is as widespread as racial discrimination, and that this is as true in the workplace as elsewhere. Weight bias was found to affect hiring preferences, promotion chances and employment termination. Moreover, obese employees are likely to be paid less than their lighter counterparts, regardless of the quality of their work.

The story is the same the world over. A UK survey of 2,000 HR professionals showed that, given the choice between an average-weight and an obese candidate, 93% would chose the former; in a poll conducted by a Seoul-based obesity clinic, 80% of respondents said being overweight greatly reduced chances of being hired. The real trouble with weight bias is that many who subscribe to it view it as justified, seeing obesity as a choice. As one UK manager says: 'Whatever else you know, there's a gnawing feeling at the back of your mind that fat people are lazy, greedy and undisciplined.'

Politics and religion

'Unless you work for the Church of England or a similar organisation,' says Mills, 'you are well advised to keep your personal views - and your political views too - to yourself.' This is good advice, firstly because disputes, especially in the area of religion, are a legal minefield. Most employers are sensitive and accommodating within reason, as they have to be by law. But it's also true that being outspoken about either politics or religion is unlikely to do your career any good at all. In fact, in most UK workplaces, overt religiosity or politicking has no career upside and is likely only to become an issue if you make it one.

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