A Sideways View

New stirrings in business psychology

Lookism at Work

To what extent does your physical appearance determine your life chances?

Are physically attractive people advantaged at work? Are they more likely to be selected for jobs, promoted in those jobs or given higher salaries? Does being physically attractive count more than being competent at work? Does physical attractiveness advantage females more than males; or does it depend on the job, the gender of the selector and the culture of the organisation?

Does intelligence moderate the relationship between attractiveness and work success? Is there a physiology of leadership? Can you judge the success of an organisation by the facial attractiveness of its CEO?

We know that attractive adults and children are judged to be more intellectually competent, emotionally adjusted and socially appealing. The questions are whether, when or why physically attractiveness reliably and powerfully predicts occupational outcome variables like income, career progress and performance. There are two competing theories in this literature: (1) Attractive people are better: their attractiveness is simply a marker of their ability and fitness. (2) Lookism, prejudice and discrimination unfairly (and unscientifically) link physical attractiveness and success at work.

The "what is beautiful is good" finding is so widely accepted that some organisations attempt to put in place processes and procedures which try to eliminate or reduce the possible influence of attractiveness. Some forbid the attachment of photographs to application forms; others try to ensure selection boards are made up equally of males and females; still others attempt through very strict competency-based, structured interviewing to focus on getting evaluations based only on work-based competency evidence. They all try to reduce impressionable ratings prone to halo effects.

There is plenty of evidence that physical attractiveness has manifold benefits in everyday life. First, there is cross-cultural agreement about attractiveness. Second, that both attractive children and adults are judged more positively compared to less attractive controls even by people who know them. Third, attractive people are treated more positively, and fourth they exhibit more positive behaviours. There are direct effects, though sometimes moderated by gender, age and familiarity.

Most selectors attempt to find people with the appropriate skills, aptitudes, attitudes and motivation to do the job well. It is rare to see physical attractiveness as a criterion of selection or competency. However there are certain jobs, particularly in sales, customer service, theatre, fashion or the media where physical attractiveness is seen to be a very distinct advantage and related to job performance. Hence it seems to many that it is quite reasonable, indeed desirable to take this into consideration in the selection process.

Can something be done to prevent discrimination sometimes called ‘lookism’ or ‘facism’ or ‘weightism.’ In most developed societies there are laws against discrimination in the work place based on sex, age, race and religion. These are often more driven by morality and ideology than scientific evidence. Many believe that physically unattractive people already carry a burden, compared to their attractive peers, that penalise them further in the work-place, which is simply unjust. Hence the call for legislation that outlaws decisions made on the basis of attractiveness.

One problem with this issue is whilst things like age and gender are objectively verifiable; judgements about attractiveness are more subjective. There is usually considerable agreement at extremes but less so in the middle of the scale. There are however both cultural and idiosyncratic correlates of physical attractiveness judgements. Moreover it is possible to separate face from body ratings of attractiveness or look at very specific features like height or hair colour. In this sense it may be difficult to defend a discrimination case where it is alleged that attractiveness discrimination has occurred.

There are three distinguishable theoretical/ideological positions in this area:

A. Unfair, stereotypic and warranting intervention

Some argue that the ‘beautiful is good’ belief is unfair, often denied and is an empirically unverified supposition and stereotype. As there is no evidence that physical attractiveness at any level (face vs. body) and/or associated with any feature (i.e. height, hair colour) is related to job performance, steps need to be taken to reduce this bias at work. Any evidence of an association between attractiveness and work performance is attributed to social processes rather than biological realities and ends up unfairly discriminating against those less physically attractive.

B . An evolutionary fact and reality

Others argue that there are both good theoretical reasons and empirical evidence to suggest that various physical features are associated with psychological factors and processes which directly relate to performance at work. In this sense the ‘beautiful is good’ idea is more an empirical fact than a stereotype. Hence it is wise to take physical attractiveness into account in the workplace and trying to legislate against it would be extremely counter-productive.

C . An association that develops

This position holds that physical attractiveness has developmental advantages which influence an individual’s personality and social behaviour. For instance, because of the ‘beautiful is good’ stereotype, attractive people are treated differently from unattractive people from an early age; by parents, peers and teachers and later by employers. Hence attractive people are likely to become more self-confident, assertive and socially skilled, which in turn means they become more able at work, particularly in inter-personal relations.

Where do you stand?

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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