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The Fenigstein Effect

David Zilberman, professor, agriculture and resource economics | May 18, 2015

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.

Comments to “The Fenigstein Effect

  1. David, what a great story and a great sense of humor. I will share the story with my students. I am sure they will like.

  2. Really interesting perspective and I completely agree. You should post this on Linkedin to get a wider readership.

  3. I agree that people can be ingenious enough to turn limitations into assets. It’s just such a bummer that in this enlightened age we still function at such a base level.

    The messages are especially confusing for young professional women. They are deluged messages that tell them that attractiveness is the most important factor in personal or professional success (see Amy Schumer’s “Plain Jane”, “12 angry men” and “Getting ready for sex”). Of course, if they happen to pass this moving bar, they then face a range of behaviors from not taken seriously to being harassed.

    The double standard for weight is yet another hurdle. In one study, researchers found that “For men, increases in weight have positive linear effects of pay but at diminished returns at above-average levels of weight…For women, increases in weight have negative linear effects on pay,…’very thin’ women earned approximately $22,000 more than their average weight counterparts.” (and that’s still just 77 cents for every dollar the men earned.) For men, weight is seen as a sign of status and gravitas, for women it is considered a lack of self control.

    Again, intelligence and creativity can find ways to cope with this but it is a shame that appearance is still such a factor.

  4. I can’t wait to hear from our distinguished social psychology researchers about their insights into agricultural trade trends and resource economics. What’s all this stuffy insistence on only writing about topics we know?

  5. The average Berkeley grad probably has average attractiveness, neither remarkably attractive nor remarkably unattractive, so any focus on a grad’s attractiveness is probably going to be a waste of time.

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