President Trump took new aim at his former chief strategist’s disheveled appearance. In the workplace, who can get away with looking ‘sloppy’ — and who can’t?
People once credited Steve Bannon with architecting POTUS’s presidential victory. These days, they call him “Sloppy Steve.”
The ousted White House chief strategist earned President Trump’s wrath upon publication of insulting comments he’d allegedly made about Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump, earning an unflattering new nickname from Trump: “(Author Michael Wolff) used Sloppy Steve Bannon, who cried when he got fired and begged for his job,” he tweeted Friday night. “Now Sloppy Steve has been dumped like a dog by almost everyone. Too bad!”
The Breitbart chairman’s aesthetic — often a mix of rumpled khakis, unshavenness and multiple layers of button-down shirts — previously drew the ire of Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), who last month likened him to “some disheveled drunk that wandered onto the political stage.”
So who skates by looking unkempt, and who can’t? And are men or women judged under a harsher lens?
For starters, management consultant Dorie Clark told Moneyish, folks in creative professions get more leeway. An ad agency or tech company worker might face lower standards than a lawyer or investment banker, she said, due to a sort of cultural belief that creative people are eccentric. “And if you are dressing in a slightly sloppy or unusual way, that may actually be seen as additional evidence of your creativity.”
Status also counts: While a Facebook program manager would likely need to spruce up for a big meeting, it’d be widely understood that Mark Zuckerberg carries enough clout to don a hoodie. Studies suggest that deliberately dressing down could be viewed as a power move that boosts your perceived level of authority by going against the grain, Clark added. “If you’re somebody that could actually make a legitimate claim to power,” she said, “you could sometimes gain more of it by ostentatiously flouting sartorial norms.”
Michael Wolff is a total loser who made up stories in order to sell this really boring and untruthful book. He used Sloppy Steve Bannon, who cried when he got fired and begged for his job. Now Sloppy Steve has been dumped like a dog by almost everyone. Too bad! https://t.co/mEeUhk5ZV9
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 6, 2018
But it’s important to distinguish between sloppiness and “deliberately different choices,” Clark said. “For instance, I don’t wear makeup. I don’t do my nails. That is a choice, a conscious choice, because that is not the brand of femininity that I want to be presenting to the world,” she said. “Some people might assume that being properly professional implies that you have to always have blow-dried hair and manicured nails, and I think that that would be a dangerously sexist viewpoint.” But matters of basic upkeep — avoiding disheveled clothes or greasy hair, for example — “are just basic forms of grooming.” “I don’t think that we need to make excuses for people who embody that level of sloppiness,” she said.
“If we’re saying casual, let’s not mistake that — you can look clean and well presented and casual,” career coach Kathy Caprino added. “There are times you’re just not your highest self; you had a late night and you’re pulling out something from the hamper. You can get away with it (for) a day. But I don’t think you should be trying to get away with sloppiness … Why do you want to get away with sloppiness?”
For our self-presentation, she said, “is typically an outer manifestation of how we feel and view ourselves inside.” “So sloppiness can be reflective of our mood: depressed, overwhelmed, anxious, giving up,” Caprino said. Similarly, Clark said, people in many ways view your professional appearance “as kind of emblematic of the meticulousness with which you approach your work.”
While it’s “never a great idea” for men or women to look slovenly at work, Clark said, women are likely to face harsher penalties. “In the cultural sphere, it’s an unfortunate reality that women’s physical appearances get noticed and talked about more. Part of that is perhaps because of endemic sexism; part of it is that women have a little more leeway in terms of their fashion choices,” she said. And with sloppiness in particular, a woman would “likely face harsher repercussions because she is violating a stronger cultural norm,” Clark said. While the public imagination leaves room for “the unkempt male genius; the Albert Einstein variety,” she added, “there is still an implicit cultural expectation that women need to be put together in a fashionable/pretty way.”
People considered to be attractive or very attractive earn about 20% more than their average-attractiveness counterparts, according to research from Jaclyn Wong, a University of Chicago sociology Ph.D candidate whose work focuses on gender inequality. And this “attractiveness premium,” Wong told Moneyish, is mostly due to grooming — meaning it doesn’t necessarily concern inborn traits like hair color, facial symmetry or height, but the effort put into self-presentation.
“It’s more about putting on nice-fitting clothes, getting a tailored suit … maybe doing your makeup or getting a haircut that suits you,” she said. What’s more, women benefit more than men by participating in these kinds of beauty rituals. “That’s not super surprising,” Wong said, “but that does suggest to us that women’s actions are more policed in the workplace than men’s are.” Given her research findings, Wong recommended both women and men in positions of power “be a little more aware of how we can be biased in our perceptions of people based on appearance, when it has nothing to do with the quality of work that we do.”
When you’re riding high, like the increasingly isolated “Sloppy Steve” once upon a time, an unkempt image can help reinforce that you “flout convention and that you do things your own way … that you are concerned with ideas and not mere surface elements,” Clark said. But if you’re somehow stripped of your power, as Bannon was upon his August exit from the White House, “your sloppiness in the public imagination quickly takes a negative turn. And people begin to say, ‘This person can’t even keep the basics together. … Why was it that we invested him with such power and such status for so long?’”
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