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Career Advice

Beauty At Work: How Physical Appearance Impacts Job Search & Careers

Posted by Glassdoor Team

Career Advice Experts

October 21, 2011

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

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