Accounting firm KPMG stripped $20,000 from the salary of Donna Kassman, a senior manager, after she went on maternity leave. When Kassman asked her supervisor how to get it back, he told her that she didn't need the money. After all, she had a "nice engagement ring."
We'll see if the argument stands up in court.
But whether or not Kassman's $350 million class action lawsuit succeeds, KPMG's tactless remark bring up a serious question, with far-reaching implications for workers and work-seekers everywhere:
Does it hurt your career to look rich?
This issue is particularly pressing when it comes to job interviews, where people want to project the most accomplished, winning versions of themselves. To do this, interviewees often wear their most accomplished, winning outfits.
"You want to express the best of who you are through the language of clothes and accessories," said Pamela Judd, a success coach at Association of Image Consultants International. "But it always depends on what the culture is of the organization you're applying for."
Of course, there are different wardrobe expectations when interviewing for a job with Jay-Z's entourage or at a poverty relief nonprofit.
"If it's a job where money is a sign of power, then you want to display an appropriate amount of money and power for the position you're applying for, or a level or two above," advised Beryl Wing, chief strategy officer at the Image Authority.
She put show business, fashion, publishing, and banking in that category, but said the gas and oil industries and the nonprofit sector weren't those kinds of scenes.
When Wing dresses clients for interviews, just to be sure, she'll often Google image search different people in the company, and take her cue from there.
Designer labels also exist along a scale; "Gucci" shouted from a rhinestone belt buckle isn't the same as a "Hermès" whispered from a silk jersey scarf.
Judd recommends sticking to a traditional or classic look, with one or two "quality" pieces. "When I say 'quality' piece, I mean the best you can afford," she said. "The fabric and the fit can give a sense of richness, even if it's not trimmed with fur or sparkles."
But at least for men, research shows, visible designer labels can be a professional plus.
Two researchers at Tilburg University in the Netherlands conducted a series of experiments to see how designer schwag affected our perceptions of the people wearing it. Participants were shown two videos of the same man being interviewed for a job, but sporting a flashy logo in only one of them.
The volunteers considered this guy more qualified for the position and suggested that he receive a salary 9% higher than his unbranded counterpart.
"The present data suggest that luxury consumption can be a profitable social strategy," the authors of the study write, because it evokes "status-dependent favorable treatment."
Wing takes issue with the study, speculating that the volunteers were perhaps of a lower level than the employer in the video, and so interpreted the logo differently.
"I can't imagine interview-appropriate clothes where you can see a logo," she said. "What was it? A polo shirt? A T-shirt?"
There may also be a gender difference. KPMG told Kassman she didn't need another $20,000, because of her engagement ring, which her husband presumably purchased. There may be the suggestion here that Kassman should be satisfied with her lower salary, because she was provided for by a man.
Kassman certainly saw the subtext as sexist; she's suing her employer for gender discrimination.
"There very probably is a gender difference," said Wing, who's currently writing a book, Clothes Talk; What Men Know About Clothes That Women Don't. "Women put a higher premium on fashion than men, to their detriment. But they don't know that."
"I think with men [designer labels] look high class," said Judd, who's also the Diversity Chair for the Big Apple Chapter of Federally Employed Women. "And sometimes with women it looks like someone who's not necessarily a shopaholic, but someone who needs the status and prestige of the logo."
"I think there can be a double standard unfortunately," she said.
Ultimately, Wing recommends that job seekers simply refresh themselves with the timeless wisdom of John T. Molloy's 1975 classic, Dress for Success. Molloy advises interviewees to go for an upper middle class look.
"And often the upper middle class looks on logos as cheap and classless," Wing said. "Usually, a conspicuous display of wealth won't get you ahead."
Judd put this in her own words. Going into an interview, she said, you just want to be "a little bit elegant."
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