Don’t think that your looks affect your job prospects, huh? Merit is all that counts – and you’ve got that covered, right?
So why, then, did Mr. and Ms. America get those great jobs – and not you?
Could it be … “beauty bias?”
Weight bias was my topic in an earlier ATL article, and I asked, “Is there a bias in the workplace against people who are ‘overweight’? Is weight a protected class under the Civil Rights laws?”
I promised then to take a similar look at “beauty bias,” also known as “appearance bias” or “lookism.”
What Is “Beauty Bias?”
It is just as it sounds – workplace bias based upon appearance.
“Lookism” may be defined as “discriminatory treatment toward physically unattractive people; mainly in the workplace but also in social settings. While not classified in the same way as racial, cultural, sexual discrimination, ‘lookism’ is widespread and affects how people are perceived as well as affecting their opportunities in terms of relationships, job opportunities, etc.”
As one psychologist said: “we face a world where lookism is one of the most pervasive but denied prejudices.”
Indeed, a number of companies have maintained a “look policy” (some found illegal, usually when involving religious dress, and most under fire), one of which, as reported in The Guardian, required that all employees appear and dress with a “natural, classic American style consistent with the company’s brand and ‘look great while exhibiting individuality.’ Workers must wear a ‘clean, natural, classic hairstyle’ and have nails which extend ‘no more than a quarter inch beyond the tip of the finger.’”
In fact, “From the late 1860s until the 1970s, several American cities had ugly laws that deemed it illegal for persons who were ‘unsightly’ or ‘unseemly to appear in public.”
Times sure have changed, huh?
“Beauty Is Goodness”
In one eye-opening paper, Professor Comila Shahani-Denning reviewed numerous studies and wrote of the “beauty is goodness” stereotype in cinema, which portrayed “attractive characters … more favorably than unattractive characters.” That is not limited to the cinema – “In the area of employment decision making, attractiveness also influences interviewers’ judgments of job applicants.”
(Professor Shahani-Denning also noted that “Some evidence suggests that when the position being applied for is traditionally filled by a male, the reverse of the typical bias is found for female applicants: Attractive females are evaluated less favorably than unattractive females.” Read also this recent ATL article, by my fellow columnist Jill Switzer, about women in law: “It’s how we dress, our hairstyles, our figures and other characteristics that don’t hamper men at all, but can be the kiss of death for women lawyers when there are women jurors and/or if it’s a high-profile case.”)
A famous Stanford law professor, Deborah Rhode, authored one of the leading works on beauty bias, and noted that a large percentage of overweight people were discriminated against in the workplace, and that short men frequently get “the short end of the stick.” And an article in Newsweek claimed that “handsome men earn, on average, 5 percent more than their less-attractive counterparts (good-looking women earn 4 percent more),” estimated by economist Daniel Hamermesh to total $230,000 over a working life.
A Time article commented that “Women with above average looks reportedly made 8% more while below-average looking women had a 4% penalization. While an attractive man earned just 4% more, men who fell below average on the looks scale were docked 13%.”
I guess it is not really surprising then that a phone survey found that almost three-quarters of working women believe that “appearance and youthful looks” are important in hiring, promotion, and rainmaking, and almost one in five either already had a cosmetic procedure or would consider doing so because of this.
“Being Dishonest About Ugliness”
If you still think that looks don’t matter, you would be as wrong now as when you had this drummed into you as a child.
The Time piece above cheerily chimed in that “everything that your mother told you growing up is a lie because the pretty people always win.” (“You was my Mother, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit!”)
In a New York Timesessay entitled “Being Dishonest About Ugliness,” Julia Baird wrote that “Adults often tangle themselves in knots when discussing physical appearance with children. We try to iron out differences by insisting they don’t matter, attribute a greater moral fortitude to the plain or leap in defensively when someone is described as not conventionally attractive, or — worse — ugly or fat.”
Maybe we would have been better off now if we were told the truth as children – she asked: “how is a child to grapple with the savage social hierarchy of ‘lookism’ that usually begins in the playground, if adults are so clumsy about it? The advantage of beauty has been long established in social science; we know now that it’s not just employers, teachers, lovers and voters who favor the aesthetically gifted, but parents, too.”
Perhaps a comment in Psychology Todayput it best, “We know that attractive adults and children are judged to be more intellectually competent, emotionally adjusted and socially appealing.”
Is It Against The Law?
There is nothing in Title VII that prohibits beauty bias per se, as long as there is no “disparate impact” on, for example, religious beliefs or disability, which require a certain appearance, grooming, dress or hairstyle. Think religion-required beards or tattoos, or missing limbs or baldness as a result of cancer treatment.
And to my knowledge, only a few jurisdictions — such as Michigan; the District of Columbia; Santa Cruz, California; Madison, Wisconsin; Urbana, Ilinois; Howard County, Maryland; and San Francisco — have laws that protect against appearance discrimination.
As one lawyer put it to me, “If you want to brand your business, you can prefer the better-looking.”
Well, that’s the way of the world – at least as it stands now. Harder to change attitudes than it is to change the law!
Earlier: Attractive Lawyers Get Paid More
Are Attractive People Better Lawyers? An ATL Debate
Richard B. Cohen has litigated and arbitrated complex business and employment disputes for almost 40 years, and is a partner in the NYC office of the national “cloud” law firm FisherBroyles. He is the creator and author of his firm’s Employment Discrimination blog, and received an award from the American Bar Association for his blog posts. You can reach him at Richard.Cohen@fisherbroyles.com and follow him on Twitter at @richard09535496.
It pays to be beautiful if you’re a fashion model or a soap star, but how about at the office? If you’re thinking that looks don’t matter in the world of work, look again.
Physical appearance can affect one’s job prospects, promotion opportunities, and relative income.
In business as in life, “it’s the beautiful people they want, it’s the beautiful people they love,” to quote the (sometimes beautiful) Christina Aguilera.
While most of us would like to think that physical appearance shouldn’t play a part in talent management and human capital decisions; the truth of the matter is that “beauty bias” – the psychological and biological hard-wiring that makes us attracted to well, attractive people – does exist.
This so-called “halo effect” is pervasive throughout our society, and the workplace is no different.
The effects of the beauty bias start working even before the employee does: the rise of the video or photo resume give recruiters a perception that’s worth a thousand resume words; and is a subconscious filter that can make or break a candidate’s chances.
Since the protected attributes & elements of diversity within a person’s appearance are co-mingled with those that aren’t; hiring professionals wary of even the perception of being influenced inappropriately by such submissions have reported they’re likely to ‘lose’ offending resumes.
Instead, they opt for those who’ve applied with a portfolio of relevant work, infographic or traditionally-formatted resume.
Catherine Hakim, Senior Research Fellow at the Centre For Policy Studies, London, suggests that beauty should be intentionally used as a tool for getting ahead at work – citing it as an “economic premium.”
Hakim’s research suggests that attractive workers are likely to earn anywhere from 7-13% more than their less comely colleagues.
Hakim explains, “Physical and social attractiveness deliver substantial benefits in all social interaction – making a person more persuasive, able to secure the co-operation of colleagues, attract customers and sell products.”
Not that this is anything new; the entire concept of diversity hiring is predicated on physical appearance; but study after study suggests that possessing “beauty capital” has a real impact on the bottom line – and a key determinant in predicting the relative success of a business or personal brand.
So if having an attractive workforce actually means more money and better relationships for employers, then why shouldn’t beauty be a factor in making a hiring decision?
It’s already an integral part in employer branding and recruitment advertising – after all, diversity doesn’t extend to having a few ugly faces in those career site stock images.
Ugliness isn’t a protected category (although if it were, few would likely choose to self report as such); so why should businesses bother even taking a look at candidates who aren’t worth, well, taking a look at?
Robert Barro, a Harvard economist, writes that in matters of business economics , we’re better served when the government stays out of the “beauty intervention business.”
The landmark Hooters legislation and settlement in the 1990s upheld the chain’s restrictive hiring practices and right to only hire those candidates deemed ‘suitably attractive’ to meet their “business plan and customer demographic” and created a major precedent which Barro applauds.
He argues, “The only meaningful measure of productivity is the amount a worker adds to customer satisfaction and to the happiness of co-workers. A worker’s physical appearance, to the extent that it is valued by customers and co-workers, is as legitimate a qualification as intelligence, dexterity, job experience and personality.”
Barro is by no means alone – one 2010 Newsweek study showed 64% of hiring managers agree that beauty plays a factor in the hiring process – and that it should.
Part of me is OK that they’re OK with this – there are many industries and job functions that would suffer immeasurably if we were to legislate out beauty bias.
After all, there are few (if any) who’d want to buy cosmetics from someone with horrible skin, or pharmaceuticals from a sales rep who is morbidly obese.
But where do you draw the line? After all, discrimination is essentially HR heresy, and doesn’t inclusion and diversity efforts mean every worked should be protected ; not just those with symmetrical features?
It seems reasonable to expect that those protections should ostensibly extend to deformities the same way they do disabilities.
On the other hand, a research study suggests that the judgment and decision of CEOs deemed ‘more attractive’ based on a number of factors actually were more successful in building trust and acceptance as leaders than their less attractive counterparts.
And if our role as HR professionals is to hire, develop, and promote the talent needed to drive business outcomes and organizational success; then surely this should be seen as imperative for managers and leaders at any level.
But that’s the thing about beauty – like so many topics in HR, it’s completely subjective – in the eye of the beholder, they say. And if we were to ignore our psychological predisposition towards those we find attractive, the future talent pool would get very shallow indeed.
If the job search really is like dating, then we should look for a match the same way we look for a mate. Of course, the flip side of this coin is that unlike in courtship, being beautiful can actually be a significant impediment – particularly for women.
While there’s scant evidence to suggest that attractiveness creates any sort of ‘career danger’ or obstacle for men; studies have shown that if a woman is deemed too beautiful, she’s likely to be denied opportunities at both ends of the career ladder.
While beauty in the “experienced, individual contributor” and entry-level management roles had little discernible negative impact in landing a job; the more attractive women in the emerging workforce were actually more likely to lose out on jobs to other, less attractive women, especially in roles requiring manual/physical labor.
In this case, the beauty bias created the false appearance of weakness, a lack of strength being directly correlated to perceived femininity.
For executives at the heights of the org chart, there’s evidence of a similar pattern – the more “gorgeous” a woman is perceived to be, the less likely she’ll be perceived as serious, intelligent or considered for promotion and top-leadership opportunities.
While exceptions to this certainly exist, Duke University’s “Corporate Beauty Contest” research project on beauty bias among CEOs couldn’t reflect women (or any minorities, for that matter) as their numbers were, for the purposes of an academic study, ‘statistically irrelevant.’
There were so few of them that researchers believed participants would be likely to recognize women included; therefore, skewing results.
But that there are so few women, or minorities, for that matter, in the top spot in organizations is anything but irrelevant.
Beauty might be in the eye of the beholder, but having the kind of diverse and inclusive workforce necessary to drive innovation can create the kind of profits that are beautiful in the eye of the shareholder.
And as everyone knows, it doesn’t matter how beautiful you are when you’re rich. – Originally posted on MonsterThinking by Crystal Miller
TagsBeauty at WorkCareer OpportunitiesMonsterThinking