Well-presented, healthy and fit creates good first impression

The toned-up executive in the sharp suit, the well-dressed account manager with perfect makeup - when it comes to work success your appearance can make a difference.

International studies support this contention - Cornell University research found that larger women were paid about 10 per cent less than their slimmer colleagues, and a University of Texas study found that people classed "above average" in attractiveness earned 10 per cent more than those judged as "average".

But it's not just the beautiful people who get the breaks when it comes to work. Pride in appearance can transcend natural good looks and make a good impression on your potential and current employers and colleagues.

Rebecca O'Hagan from Madison Recruitment in Auckland has first-hand experience of the power of appearance. She says that being well-presented, healthy and fit is important for creating a good first impression. "You are your own brand, so [in the workplace] it makes sense to present yourself in the best way possible," she says.

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She believes that people who appear to look after themselves are a great advertisement for this "brand" and likely to attract favourable attention when it comes to gaining employment or advancing in their careers.

"Pride in appearance indicates someone who will take pride in their work," says O'Hagan. "It really comes down to looking after yourself; going for regular walks, eating whole foods, and wearing clean, well-laundered clothes can make the difference."

While natural beauty can give people an edge over their workmates, those who don't conform to the societal ideals can also gain a competitive edge by being fit, healthy and appearance conscious.

"People who look after themselves will have a leading edge over their competitors in the workforce, as they are likely to take fewer sick days and be perceived as being more reliable," explains O'Hagan.

Having a healthy lifestyle is also likely to lead to improved appearance and workplace performance.

"In a world where we're bombarded from all directions, looking after yourself first by taking time out for exercise allows for a bit of breathing space, makes us sleep better, relieves stress, improves mental agility, and consequently makes us perform better at work," she says.

While human rights law makes it illegal to discriminate against a person based on their looks, companies do have the right to demand certain standards when it comes to the appearance of their employees.

Having written policies around what is required when it comes to standards of appearance can make it easier to deal with any staff whose standards slip in this area.

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"Having this policy in writing and telling your employees when they first start what is acceptable attire is very helpful," says HR professional Joan Watson.

"Some of my clients are also now asking me to put something in their employee handbooks about personal hygiene. At least then they can refer to that if they do have to confront an employee about this."

Appearance can also be an issue if it impinges on the health and safety requirements of a workplace.

"Multiple piercings, long hair or jewellery could get trapped in machinery, so it's important to be aware of this," says O'Hagan.

As a recruitment specialist, O'Hagan says that she is duty bound to let people know when their appearance is likely to work against them in the job market.

"If someone needed to smarten up their appearance and I didn't tell them, I wouldn't be doing my job," she says.

She says it's important that people understand the role good appearance plays when it comes to the process of gaining employment.

"I need to ensure that my candidates present themselves in the best possible light and if I thought they could increase their chances of getting the job by smartening up their appearance a little," she explains.

"I wouldn't have an issue giving them a few pointers as it would be in their best interests."

Having said this, O'Hagan feels that good appearance doesn't need to be equated with major financial outlay.

"It must be emphasised that this isn't about spending a lot of money on fancy gyms or designer clothes," she says.

But she says that taking care of yourself, looking after your health and fitness, and presenting yourself in the best possible light in a work environment will inevitably lead to good outcomes professionally.

"Just look at the excellent work that the charity Dress for Success does." (Dress for Success is a not-for-profit organisation that provides women on low incomes with free professional attire.)

"The title says it all, really," she says.