Dress for Bias

Back in 1980, I read John T. Molloy`s advice book Dress for Success. It was aimed at the large number of men who don`t particularly care about looking good, but who don`t want to look bad. It was nearly unique in that Molloy had done simple social science research before offering his fashion advice to men in the business world. What kind of unspoken prejudices do the public hold about men`s clothing?

For example, he asked the cops at a New York commuter train station if they`d ever arrested a pickpocket wearing a tie. No. 

He then tried bumming train fare home to Connecticut by claiming to have lost his wallet. When dressed in a suit and a tie, he was remarkably successful, with some commuters even giving him extra money to buy a newspaper to read on his way home. When wearing a suit but no tie, he did okay. When dressed casually, he did poorly. 

He reported that his research showed that the hierarchy of suits in terms of perceived trustworthiness and favorability was blue > gray > brown > green. To the public, a man wearing a blue suit was seen slightly more favorably than a man wearing a gray suit. A maroon tie was best. In contrast, men dressed in (and my memory is murky here) green suits and/or bowties were assumed to be embezzlers, college professors, or alcoholics. Perhaps a green suit and a bowtie was assumed to be worn only by academics embezzling the departmental petty cash for cheap gin? 

All in all, it was very helpful stuff for a young man. 

`Dress for Success` Book Leads to Discrimination Suit

By Christopher Cornell

Friday, July 1, 2005

A former salesman for the Philadelphia Eagles Radio Network has been awarded $614,000 by the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission in a discrimination case that began after his supervisor handed out copies of a book, New Dress for Success, by John T. Molloy. 

In May 2001, supervisors at the radio network, which is affiliated with WYSP FM in Philadelphia, distributed the book to all its salespeople, including Shawn Brooks, 34, then the only African-American salesperson on staff. 

The book is a collection of advice on how to dress for business success, and in a chapter directed at minorities, it advises blacks selling to whites not to wear “Afro” hairstyles or African-style clothing. It also advises Hispanic salespeople  o “avoid any hair tonic that tends to give a greasy or shiny look to the hair; this also triggers a negative reaction.” 

Brooks was offended by the contents of the book, and when he deemed the response to his complaints insufficient, he resigned and filed discrimination charges with the commission. 

Brooks found sympathetic ears at the commission. After reviewing the book, commission Chairman Stephen A. Glassman called it “the most egregious case of published documentation on stereotyping and bias toward race, gender and religion in the workplace the commissioners have seen in a long time.” 

Viacom Inc. and Infinity Broadcasting, the network`s parent companies, have appealed the ruling to a state appellate court.

Here are some offending quotes:

(i) “If you are black selling to white Middle America, dress like a white. . . . This clothing conveys that you are a member of the establishment and that you are pushing no radical or other feared ideas.”  

(ii) “Blacks selling to whites should not wear Afro hairstyles or any clothing that is African in association.  If you are selling to corporate America, it’s very important that you dress, not as well as the white salesman, but better than them.  You have to wear suits, shirts and ties that are expensive and more conservative than your white co-workers.”

(iii) “If you are white selling to blacks, you will fare much better if you dress in non-establishment patterns.  Black America is essentially divided into two camps, establishment and anti-establishment, and the divisions are not dictated by income alone. . . . Almost all members of Northern ghettos who are in the lower socioeconomic groups are understandably antiestablishment. . . . The black establishment includes all blacks who have made it along with almost all Southern, rural blacks, no matter what their position.  Southern blacks do not consider themselves disenfranchised . . . .”

(iv) “When selling to middle class blacks, you cannot dress like a ghetto black . . . .”

(v) “It is an undeniable fact that the typical upper-middle-class American looks white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant.  He is of medium build, fair complexion with almost no pronounced physical characteristics.  He is the model of success; that is, if you run a test, most people of all socioeconomic, racial and ethnic backgrounds will identify with him as such.”

(vi) “The two groups who have the most problems with their appearances are black men and Hispanic men.  It is unfortunate but true that our society has conditioned us to look upon members of both groups as belonging to the lower classes, and no matter how high a minority individual rises in status or achievement, he is going to have some difficulty being identified by his success rather than his background.  But clothing can help.”

Here`s more on this case from Michael Smerconish, including an interview with Molloy about it, and some ironies.

I don`t know what the eventual outcome of this discrimination case was. Typically these extremely egregious cases get sanded down in the appeals process. If I were Brooks` lawyer, I`d advise him to be happy with a settlement offer of, say, $100k.

P.S. Doing some more research, I find this 2009 Third Circuit Court of Appeals decision affirming the trial court`s summary judgment against the plaintiff. In other words, assuming the case didn`t go on to the Supreme Court, the black guy lost completely. It only took eight years and a 16-page decision of the second highest level court in the land.

My impression is that these kind of initial decisions giving absurd amounts of money to blacks for exigent degrees of discrimination constitute a kind of urban folklore among  black people, encouraging them to be on the lookout for a lawsuit that could make their fortune.

The fact that many of the most ridiculous charges of discrimination eventually get dismissed or get settled for pennies on the dollar is not widely known. It`s not considered news. Blacks find it depressing. The occasional white populist like Smerconish finds it boring. Elite media doesn`t find it fits the Narrative. And there is almost no will in America to shame individual blacks for these kind of violations of civil society.

Second, consider the “chilling effect” of this eight year long lawsuit. Justice William Brennan of the Warren Court popularized the phrase “chilling effect” as something we must be vigilant against in making sure that laws don`t suppress free speech. The chilling effect of anti-discrimination efforts on free speech is pretty obvious if you stop and think about it, but almost nobody ever does.

As I`ve pointed out many times, much of what we think of as speech in the U.S. is paid for by businesses, and businesses are loath to associate their names with anybody who could be cited in a discrimination lawsuit. For example, Malcolm Gladwell is a role model to a generation of journalists (e.g., Jonah Lehrer) because of his ability to profit lavishly from both the prestige press  and from corporate speaking engagements. Corporations know that they won`t get in legal trouble hiring Malcolm Gladwell to speak to their salesmen, but they could hiring somebody “controversial.”

Therefore, I was hoping to see in the 3rd Circuit decision a ringing chastisement of the plaintiff for his suit`s chilling effect on free speech. Instead, we get:

Although Brooks was understandably offended by the contents of the book he was instructed by Zurzolo to read and follow, the record is clear that Zurzlo did not know about the book’s offensive passages and that employees were quickly informed that the book did not reflect the views of the company or their supervisors.  Given this, the distribution of New Dress for Success does not represent sufficiently severe harassment to support a Title VII hostile work environment claim.

If I were a manager at a deep-pocketed corporation, from this I`d draw the lesson that black and Hispanic employees are “understandably offended” by Molloy`s findings, so, to be safe, our corporation better not have anything to do with Molloy. Granted, the court decided that handing out the book alone is not enough for a $614,000 payout, but it doesn`t help.