The Fenigstein Effect

Every year during graduation season, I encounter many students who are nervous about the job market. Surprisingly, many worry not only about their technical qualifications, but that they don’t look the part.

Some of these students probably listen to the media and studies that have found that good-looking men are considered more competent and good-looking women are considered less competent in a work environment, which may lead to sexist discrimination. The study also discovered some strategic behavior in hiring: when you hire someone who will collaborate with you, you will favor the better-looking person, but when you hire someone who competes with you (e.g. another salesperson), you will hire the less-attractive person.

elegant character in Jane Austen, preening before a mirror

Sir Walter Elliot, of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, before a cheval glass. “Few women could think more of their personal appearance than he did.” (By C.E. Brock via Wikimedia Commons)

These concerns and studies remind me of Jack Fenigstein, with whom I worked in a computer company in Israel. I was responsible for the payroll application for the company and he was one of our four salespeople.

Three of them looked like textbook salespeople — blue suits, crisp white shirts, a handkerchief in the pocket, etc. But Fenigstein was a round ball, never wore a suit and tie, and always had a shirt with buttons on the verge of explosion.

Yet he was our best salesperson. The manager of the company was always upset at his appearance because he wasn’t presentable, yet couldn’t fire him because of his sales success.

Once I asked him, “Jack, why don’t you dress like a mensch?” And he replied, “I tried, but I actually look worse in a suit than I do like this. When you try to wear a suit and it doesn’t fit, no matter what you do, you look like a failure. But if you dress informally, it is a signal that you don’t care about appearances.”

Besides, he said that this appearance is good for business. He told me that he operates by calling people to make an appointment, and that he has a great body for the telephone. He said, “once they invite me, the secretary gives me a disgusting look but the boss has no choice but to hear me out for five minutes. Then, I give them my best pitch — I figure out their needs and provide them with a reasonable solution.

Suddenly their underestimation works in my favor. They think, ‘this guy really cares about the important stuff, not a stupid model for Brooks Brothers.’”

Later on, I learned about another study that found that good-looking men might be considered smarter, but get fewer job offers because they come across as intimidating. That’s another explanation for what I call “The Fenigstein Effect.”

Fenigstein once said that the unique skills of salespeople may not correlate with good skills in economics. We took some classes together and he needed at least a mark of 60 to get his degree. I drove him back to work after he learned that he flunked and he couldn’t get his degree in economics.

He told me, “I thought about it, and my revenge will be that one day all of these professors will work in the Jack Fenigstein building…” I never found out if the building exists or not, but I know he employed many economists as consultants. Jack might not have been a great academic or a sharp-looking person, but when I saw him working with a client, figuring out their needs, and helping to design a computerized solution that fit the customer’s needs, I understood why he was successful.

When I read a study relating performance to appearance, I am always reminded of the Fenigstein Effect, and how insightful people can turn a perceived liability into an asset. It is essential to accept yourself and find ways to take advantage of “what you got” rather than to lament it.

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