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Applying image norms across Super's career development stages.

D. E. Super's (1957) theory of career development has long been of interest to careers researchers (M. Savickas, 1994; S. C. Whiston & B. K. Brecheisen, 2002). Its insightful illustration of career stages has made it widely applied by careers practitioners. Image norms may influence the career decisions and developmental tasks inherent in each stage. An image norm is the belief that individuals must present or possess a certain image, consistent with occupational, organizational, or industry standards, in order to achieve career success. Understanding the effects of image norms across D. E. Super's (1957) career stages has important implications for individuals, organizations, and career counseling professionals.


Super's (1957) theory of career development has long been of interest to careers researchers (Fouad & Arbona, 1994; Savickas, 1994; Whiston & Brecheisen, 2002). Its insightful illustration of the stages individuals pass through in their careers has made it widely applied by careers practitioners and has profoundly affected numerous clients. The purpose of this article is to use Super's (1957) theory as a tool to illustrate how image norms may operate in each of his career stages. Image norms may influence the career decisions and developmental tasks inherent in each of Super's (1990) stages. An image norm is the belief that individuals must present or possess a certain image, consistent with occupational, organizational, or industry standards, in order to achieve career success. The rise in image discrimination cases suggests that image norms may play an important role in employment decisions. We propose that physical attractiveness and image effects may have an impact on career decisions throughout Super's (1957, 1990) developmental stages. These effects need to be more fully researched in order to understand the role of image norms in career decisions.

Image norms may influence career choices in every stage of an individual's career. Super's (1957, 1984) Model of Career Development has greatly influenced research on career stages. Super (1990) described five stages individuals go through in their careers, beginning with growth and ending with disengagement. As individuals confront the developmental tasks inherent in each stage, beliefs about the role of image may influence the accomplishment of said tasks.

In the first part of this article, we describe how image norms are formed. Image norms are considered to operate within a broader societal context and, as such, are expected to be influenced by society's definitions of beauty and attractiveness. In the second part, we examine Super's (1984) theory of careers and hypothesize how image norms may operate in each stage of his model. Finally, in the third part, we discuss the implications of image norms for individuals, organizations, and career counseling professionals.

Image Norms

Although the role of physical attractiveness in career decisions has received fairly strong research support (Hosoda, Stone-Romero, & Coats, 2003), the role of image has received limited attention from academics. A person's image is the totality of his or her personal appearance. Beliefs about the importance of image, personal appearance, and physical attractiveness in the workplace may reflect occupational and organizational stereotypes. Image norms may also reflect gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, disability status, spiritual beliefs, and other cultural factors (Fouad & Byars-Winston, 2005). Ultimately, all of these factors may shape one's perception of image and become the basis for image norms.

Individuals develop three separate (but not mutually exclusive) sets of image perceptions, each of which may shape image norms and influence career decisions. The first set of perceptions involves occupational stereotypes. This is the belief that presenting or possessing a certain image is a requirement for entry into an occupation. Individuals' perceptions of these requirements may influence the decision to pursue or avoid certain jobs and occupations.

The second set of perceptions involves an individual's self-image. Individuals hold beliefs about their own image and degree of physical attractiveness. These beliefs may encompass physical characteristics (e.g., height, weight, strength, and endurance) and demographic attributes (e.g., gender, ethnicity, disability, and age). Such beliefs are likely grounded in and reflective of the current cultural norms and social mores regarding image and attractiveness in a society (Frith, Ping, & Hong, 2005). Evidence of gender differences in ratings of skills and abilities (Swanson & Lease, 1990) may also emerge in self-evaluations of image and attractiveness. Perceptions of one's own image may influence assessments of self-esteem and self-efficacy and serve to establish expectancies about the likelihood of success in certain occupations.

Finally, the third set of perceptions individuals may develop involves the relationship between their own image and an organization's image. The term organizational image has been used to describe general impressions of a company. Tom (1971) defined organizational image as the way that people perceive an organization, consisting of their knowledge, beliefs, and feelings about an organization. Others have described organizational image as a reaction to the company's name (Gatewood, Gowan, & Lautenschlager, 1993) or as a set of attributes about a company (Belt & Paolillo, 1982). Companies may prefer to hire and retain employees whose image is consistent with their organizational image. Individuals may rely on organizational images as one factor in determining their potential fit with a particular company (Greenhaus, Callanan, & Godshalk, 2000).

Image Norms and Super's Model of Career Development

Central to Super's (1957) theory of career development is the notion of the self-concept (Betz, 1994). Self-concept is basically how individuals picture themselves (Super, 1957). It has been defined as "the constellation of self attributes considered by the individual to be vocationally relevant" (Super, 1963, p. 20). This picture includes one's abilities, personality traits, values, self-esteem, and self-efficacy. Super (1963) suggested that individuals attempt to implement their self-concept through occupational choice. Given the definitional breadth of Super's (1963) construct (Betz, 1994), one's self-concept may also include beliefs about one's image, personal appearance, and physical attractiveness. Perceptions of one's image may influence beliefs about which occupations would allow for the implementation of the self-concept.

Developmental theories of careers assume that "career development is a process that takes place over the life span" (Super, Savickas, & Super, 1996, p. 128). Numerous psychologists and sociologists have suggested that individuals progress through distinct career stages, where each career stage is characterized by unique career concerns, psychological needs, and developmental tasks (Arthur, Hall, & Lawrence, 1989; Brown & Brooks, 1996; Vondracek, Lerner, & Schulenberg, 1986). Super (1957, 1984) offered one of the most widely recognized models of career development stages.

Super's most recent formulation of his theory proposes that individuals progress through five stages of career development across the life span (Super et al., 1996; Zunker, 1998). The stages are growth, exploration, establishment, maintenance, and disengagement. This article focuses on how image norms may operate in each of Super's (1990) career development stages to influence the occupational and organizational choices individuals face throughout their careers. Applications of image norms across each of Super's (1990) stages are more fully developed in the following paragraphs.


In the growth stage, an individual begins to develop his or her self-concept (Super, 1957). The growth stage involves an individual's first introduction to the world of occupations (Super, 1990). Research suggests that children hold broad stereotypes about jobs that allow them to differentiate between occupations (Gottfredson, 1996; Martin & Gentry, 1997). Gender differences reflecting societal norms and expectations also manifest themselves as occupational stereotypes in this early stage of career development. In fact, "a series of studies conducted in the early 1970s (Hewitt, 1975; Looft, 1971) concluded that, by their early school years, children has [sic] acquired attitudes toward occupations that reflected traditional gender-role stereotypes" (Rubenfeld & Gilroy, 1991, p. 64). A generation later, Piel Cook (1993) argued that "the sex differentiation of the labor market continues, with women and men tending to prefer gender-traditional occupations" (p. 227). A recent study of seventh graders found that, when asked about their hopes for their future careers, boys tended to list mechanics, construction, the military, and sports-related fields, whereas girls tended to list health-related, writing, art, and entertainment-related fields (Usinger, 2005).

Occupational stereotypes about the importance of image and physical attractiveness for career success in certain occupations may become the basis for image norms. Adolescents may believe that individuals must possess a specific image to work in certain occupations, industries, and companies. Occupational image norms that are formed in the growth stage likely arise from one's own experiences, messages from family and friends in the social network, and messages from the media.

First, image norms may be created at an early age through one's own experiences with workers. Children are hypothesized to create image norms for those jobs and professions that they have contact with, such as teachers, doctors, and firefighters (Gottfredson, 1996). These individuals introduce children to specific job roles. As such, these interactions may strongly influence children's perceptions of the image requirements of certain jobs and may have long-lasting effects on occupational choice (Palladino Schultheiss, Palma, & Manzi, 2005).

A second source of image norms may arise from messages sent by family, friends, and others in a child's social network. Two types of messages may be sent. First, family, friends, and others in the social network may express their beliefs about the importance of image in certain occupations. Comments such as "People need to be pretty to work on television" may shape a young person's perception of the importance of physical attractiveness for succeeding in certain occupations. Second, as career aspirations are expressed, family, friends, and others in an individual's social network may share their opinions about the individual's likelihood of success in the chosen occupation. Comments such as "You're too short to be a police officer" or "You're not pretty enough to be a model" are likely to shape children's perceptions of their own physical attractiveness, as well as image norms about specific occupations.

Messages from salient others, especially parents and teachers, may become deeply ingrained. In his article "Donald Edwin Super: The Career of a Planful Explorer," Savickas (1994) revealed that "Super remembered his whole life how his first grade teacher criticized his Southern manners" (p. 22). For some, such criticisms may be difficult to overcome, whereas for others, negative comments may propel them to succeed in a job against the odds. For example, in interviews and speeches, Oprah Winfrey often recounts the day her grandmother was doing laundry and told Oprah to watch and learn because someday this would be her life, too. Winfrey, though, says she knew that her life would be more than washing clothes, because "her life felt bigger than what Mississippi thought of her" (Parker, 2005, para. 23).

Finally, image norms may also arise from messages conveyed by the media. Occupational images may be found in newspapers, magazines, advertisements, commercials, cartoons, television shows, videos, and the movies. These visual images of different jobs may serve to reinforce the occupational stereotypes held by adolescents. Hartung (1996) noted that "popular literature (e.g., magazines and newspapers) and literary works (e.g., poems, short stories, and novels) have also been considered as sources of career information (albeit informal ones)" (p. 234). As would be expected, the visual images found in formal sources of occupational information are important depictions of the world of work (Hartung, 1996).

In time, these visual representations of jobs may become the basis for occupational stereotypes as well as image norms. Messages from the media may send strong signals about the importance of physical attractiveness for success in certain jobs. Professional associations might consider monitoring how their occupational image is portrayed in both the popular media and more formal sources of occupational information. The image norms formed in the growth stage may have subtle but long-lasting effects on an individual's career choices in later stages of development.


Individuals in the exploration stage gather more specific information about themselves and the world of work. The stereotypes learned in the growth stage are refined as adolescents and young adults learn more about the world of work and more accurate information is obtained about specific occupations. Individuals then act on this information by matching their interests and capabilities to occupations in an attempt to implement their self-concept at work and in other life roles (Super, 1957).

The occupational images formulated in this stage are likely to arise from contact with individuals in specific jobs, part-time work experiences, and media materials published by organizations (Gibson, 2004). Similar to what occurs in the growth stage, visual images of employees engaging in different jobs within specific companies may serve to reinforce the occupational stereotypes held by young adults. Such images may be particularly salient for first-time entrants to the labor market, who typically possess limited information about job and company attributes. These images help shape perceptions about the role of image and physical attractiveness in specific occupations and organizations and become the basis for a young adult's image norms.

Image norms are expected to influence occupational, job, and organizational search and choice activities in the exploration stage of career development. There are many ways in which a company's image norms may be conveyed to applicants. Consider the following examples. An organizational representative may suggest to an applicant that he or she does not fit the company's image. How frequently and how directly this type of message is conveyed to applicants is likely to vary by occupation, industry, and company. A colleague described his daughter's experience in searching for her first job at the age of 17. She had applied to a local restaurant for a position as a waiter. She received a phone call from the manager of the restaurant, in which he asked her only one question: "Are you good looking?" Although her father was appalled, she answered that she was good looking, whereupon she was invited to come to the restaurant to meet the manager. She got the job.

Messages about a company's image may be sent directly by the organization itself or indirectly through media reporting on that company. For example, Disney's appearance standards for cast members are well known in the entertainment and hospitality industry (Boje, 1995). Companies produce vast amounts of materials that contain their preferred organizational image. These materials include job advertisements, product advertisements, company brochures, and public relations materials. Organizations need to closely monitor these materials to ensure that the images that are actually portrayed are congruent with the organization's intended image.

During the exploration stage, individuals meet people who occupy specific jobs in different firms. As young adults form a perception of the image of the job incumbent, they will begin to perceive that image as one of the requirements for entry into that job. Image norms for similar jobs are likely to vary by company. For example, image norms for computer specialists will vary depending on whether they work for IBM or Microsoft.


During the establishment stage, individuals are concerned with career advancement in their chosen occupation. They are trying to establish a stable work environment with the potential for growth and the opportunity for promotions. In the establishment stage, the influence of image norms shifts from "How do image norms affect one's ability to enter an occupation and an organization?" to "How do image norms affect one's ability to advance in the chosen occupation and organization?"

The belief that it is necessary to present a specific image for advancement in a company has important consequences for individuals and organizations. Job incumbents may engage in impression management techniques to alter their professional appearance in the hopes of increasing their chances of promotions and advancement. Such tactics may vary from the subtle (e.g., hiring a wardrobe consultant or changing one's hair and makeup) to the dramatic (e.g., undergoing cosmetic surgery).

An entire industry is devoted to image. The Association of Image Consultants International (AICI) "is a worldwide, non-profit professional association of men and women specializing in visual appearance and verbal and non-verbal communication" (AICI, 2005, para. 1). Image and image consulting are big business. Cosmetic surgery is on the rise for both midcareer men and women. In 2004, more than 11.8 million cosmetic procedures were performed in the United States, which is a 44% increase from 1993. Americans spent nearly $12.5 billion on these procedures in 2004 (American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, 2005). A recent study (Fellingham, 2003) even explored the effect of having makeup professionally applied and how it helps with promotions.

It is recognized that the role of image norms in the establishment stage is likely to be highly industry specific. Individual actions (e.g., cosmetic surgery) that would be considered extreme in one profession (e.g., academia) may be commonplace, or even expected, in other industries (e.g., entertainment).


During the maintenance stage, individuals are concerned with maintaining their self-concept and their present job status. In the maintenance stage, individuals are faced with career choices, such as whether to remain in their chosen occupation and whether to continue working for their present company. Image norms may influence these decisions as individuals consider whether the choices they made in earlier career stages continue to match their evolving self-concept.

Image norms may influence the decision to remain in an occupation during the maintenance stage. It is hypothesized that individuals working in occupations with strict physical requirements (including bona fide occupational qualifications) would more easily recognize the need to consider less physically demanding occupations as they move into later career stages (Brewington & Nassar-McMillan, 2000). Examples might include professional athletes who retire from competitive play and become sportscasters, police officers and firefighters who transition from the field to administrative positions, and emergency room (ER) nurses who leave the ER to work in doctors' offices.

During the maintenance stage, it is important to recognize that image norms may intersect with age norms (Lawrence, 1988) as people assess whether their occupation is age appropriate. In this stage, image norms may include societal norms regarding age and occupations. Job incumbents may question whether someone their age should be doing a particular job. Violations of age-related image norms may include the 40-year-old ski instructor or the 50-year-old management trainee. Interestingly, image norms do not appear to be a concern among aging rock stars. Many rock stars now in their 60s continue to perform concerts, and many go through elaborate cosmetic processes to ensure that they have the correct image to appear on stage.

In contrast, other artists choose to move off the public stage as they age beyond what many would consider the age norm for their professions. They may make career changes by starting businesses, changing industries, or devoting themselves to nonprofits, foundations, and public service (Bloch, 2005).

In addition to occupational change, individuals may change organizations in the maintenance stage (Davis, 2003). As people age, they may feel that they no longer fit the image of the majority of employees who work for their company. Working with significantly younger colleagues, recruiting significantly younger applicants, or being supervised by someone a generation younger than oneself may be difficult issues for some older workers (Brewington & Nassar-McMillan, 2000). Individuals in the maintenance stage may question whether they are too old to work for their company or whether they will be able to compete in the market against younger applicants.

The loss of friends, coworkers, and role models (Gibson & Barron, 2003) in one's age and tenure cohort because of layoffs, retirements, sickness, and even death may contribute to feelings of isolation, poor fit, and job dissatisfaction. If these feelings are strong enough, individuals may choose to change organizations and work in a company where they perceive a better fit with both image and age norms.

Individuals who experience career plateauing (Tan & Salomone, 1994) or layoffs during the maintenance stage may be particularly vulnerable to feelings of poor fit if they do not believe that their image matches their company's image or that of other companies in their labor market. For example, it is difficult to imagine aging baby boomers feeling comfortable working in hip, youth-oriented companies such as Quiksilver or Wet Seal despite a resume with years of relevant work experience.

In addition to losing valuable employees during the maintenance stage because of image norms, organizations need to be aware of the legal ramifications associated with their reward, retention, and retirement policies. Employees who have been with the company a long time and are passed over because their image does not match organizational image norms may file an image discrimination suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act or an age discrimination suit under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. At a minimum, companies may lose excellent performers if these employees feel passed over for promotions because the image norm for top managers is younger than they are.


During the disengagement stage, individuals are focused on developing a self-image and a self-concept that are independent of and separate from work. Advances in health care, the aging of the workforce, and the desire to remain active in the workplace throughout one's 60s and 70s suggest that people today may spend a longer time in the maintenance stage and delay disengaging from work than was true of their parents and grandparents (Brewington & Nassar-McMillan, 2000). The concerted efforts of Wal-Mart and McDonald's to hire retirees and older employees may help shatter society's age norms as the public becomes used to seeing older workers remain in the workplace, occupying jobs traditionally held by high school students and young adults.

Although the age norm issues discussed in the Maintenance section could manifest themselves in the disengagement stage, it should be noted that image norms in the disengagement stage may arise from perceptions of being too young rather than too old. Discussions of retirement planning may seem premature for individuals who expect to work throughout their 60s and into their 70s (Brewington & Nassar-McMillan, 2000). Volunteering, extensive travel, and time with the grandchildren may be perceived as activities for "old people" or things they will do later in life.

The disengagement stage seems an appropriate stage in which to discuss the concept of image busters. Image busters are individuals who do not conform to traditional image norms for occupations, organizations, or industries. Image busters are individuals who are so confident in their expertise, knowledge, skills, and abilities that they are not concerned with whether their image meets job, company, or industry image norms. These are people who consciously or unconsciously violate organizational and occupational stereotypes. Image busters may be so critical to an organization's success that it is considered irrelevant if they violate their company's image norms. It is important that companies retain their image busters and not have them leave the firm because they do not feel valued. Image busters may provide important influences on people's perceptions of what it takes to be successful in a job or occupation. They may serve as role models for entire generations (Gibson & Barron, 2003), and their stories may be very inspirational.


This article has examined the various ways that image norms may manifest themselves during Super's (1990) career stages. A better understanding of the influence of image norms on career decisions has important implications for individuals, organizations, and career counseling professionals. As individuals confront the developmental tasks inherent in each of Super's (1990) career stages, they need to be cognizant of the subtle role that image norms may play in affecting their career choices. Messages about image norms may be internalized by children and adolescents and have long-term implications as they assess whether certain occupations will allow them to implement their self-concepts.

In the midcareer stages, image norms may affect the decision to enter or remain in certain organizations as individuals attempt to ascertain whether an organization's image is congruent with their self-perceptions. At later career stages, image norms may intersect with age norms to influence the decision to remain in the workforce or to begin the process of disengagement.

Career Development Professionals

Career counseling professionals are encouraged to consider how clients' perceptions of their own image, occupational stereotypes, organizational images, and image norms may influence career decisions. A serious discussion about image (and age) norms should address occupational and organizational stereotypes; the relationship between perceptions of one's own image and feelings of self-esteem and self-worth during job search; how image norms are communicated by organizations and their potential for masking racial, age, and gender discrimination; and the ways that image norms may serve as a constraint or a motivation for an individual in the consideration to pursue various occupations or to work for particular organizations.

In addition, career counseling professionals are encouraged to sensitively help clients consider the different ways that image norms may manifest themselves in each of Super's (1990) career stages. Such sensitivity would acknowledge the fact that some clients will be uncomfortable discussing issues such as their age, physical appearance, weight, attractiveness, and image.

When counseling diverse populations, career counselors should explore the relationship between image norms and other individual difference variables, including gender (Piel Cook, 1993, 1994), disability status (Friehe, Aune, & Leuenberger, 1996), sexual orientation (Pope et al., 2004), ethnic identity (Fouad & Arbona, 1994; Perrone, Sedlacek, & Alexander, 2001), age (Brewington & Nassar-McMillan, 2000), and social economic status (Trusty & Ng, 2000). Counselors should address the needs of both male and female clients who expect to choose nontraditional careers (Rubenfeld & Gilroy, 1991), because image norms typically reflect gender-traditional occupations.

Job Placement Professionals

Furthermore, job placement professionals in career-related fields are encouraged to consider the effects of image norms on career decisions. Outplacement firm counselors, headhunters, and those who work in search firms often provide the only career guidance that many individuals experience when job hunting, making career decisions, and dealing with the loss of a job. Job placement professionals are encouraged to help clients understand the influence of image norms on career decisions in middle and late career stages.

Human Resource Development Professionals

Organizations must consider the role that image norms play in the career decisions of potential applicants and current employees. Because job incumbents may become prototypes of young adults' image norms, organizations should monitor their recruiting activities to ensure that qualified individuals do not self-select out of the hiring process because they believe that they do not fit occupational or organizational image norms.

Recruitment materials should be assessed for subtle signals about the type of image the company is perceived as wishing to portray in the marketplace. Recruiters and organizational representatives need to receive training to ensure that they are not intentionally or unintentionally judging applicants based on their own image norms rather than the candidates' qualifications. The same training is required for anyone in the firm who holds an evaluative position. Promotion and reward policies should be examined to ensure that organizational members of all ages and images feel valued and appreciated.

Organizations need to audit their promotion and reward policies to ensure that they are based on job-related criteria and not on other factors such as image and physical attractiveness. Past studies have found that physical attractiveness does influence organizational decisions (e.g., Hosoda et al., 2003). Those who are more physically attractive have been found to have a higher probability of being hired or promoted (Dovidio, Major, & Crocker, 2001) and to have received more positive evaluations than unattractive individuals in the areas of hiring (Marshall, Stamps, & Moore, 1998), promotion (Morrow, McElroy, Stamper, & Wilson, 1990), and compensation (Frieze, Olson, & Russell, 1991). Physical characteristics that have been researched include height (Miller, 1986), weight (Furnham, Tan, & McManus, 1997; Henss, 2000; Singh, 1995), clothing (Sullivan, 1997), facial beauty (Synnott, 1989), and disability status (Colella, DeNisi, & Varma, 1997). Future research should examine the effects of image on career outcomes with the same rigor that has been used in assessing attractiveness effects.

Future Research

Examining the effects of image norms across each of Super's (1990) career stages offers several fruitful and interesting avenues for future research in careers. Future research should examine all aspects of image norms, including empirically exploring the influence of image norms on each of Super's (1990) career stages. Such research could begin with qualitative studies of clients' perceptions of image norms and how clients have seen image norms operate in each stage of career development. Policy capturing appears to be an appropriate methodology for exploring the ways that image norms affect organizational outcomes and individual career decisions at different stages of development. Future research should also explore the interactive effects of image norms and career stage on various psychological variables affecting attitudes toward work, such as job satisfaction, job involvement, organizational commitment, and perceived organizational support.

Harris-Bowlsbey (2003) noted that what is missing from careers research are studies across individuals' entire life spans (Vondracek, 2001). The early and late stages of Super's (1990) model have received limited attention from academics (Swanson, 1992). There is very little research on the growth stage of Super's (1957) model (Palladino Schultheiss et al., 2005). The disengagement stage has also received limited study (Vondracek, 2001). Information and resources for counseling this population are sparse at best.

In conclusion, this article explored the role of image norms in each of Super's (1990) career stages. Image norms describe beliefs that individuals hold about the role of image in explaining career success in different jobs, companies, and fields. Super's (1957, 1984) theory provides a comprehensive theoretical framework for examining how image norms may influence employment decisions at each stage of career development. The beliefs that individuals hold about the role of image in explaining career success in different jobs, companies, and industries are nicely captured by the construct of image norms and deserving of more attention in the careers literature.


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Cristina M. Giannantonio and Amy E. Hurley-Hanson, Argyros School of Business and Economics, Chapman University. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Cristina M. Giannantonio, Argyros School of Business and Economics, Chapman University, One University Drive, Orange, CA 92866 (e-mail:
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Author:Hurley-Hanson, Amy E.
Publication:Career Development Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2006
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