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Beauty Bonus: How to recognise unconscious bias

When it comes to choosing candidates, is it possible to curb our innate bias that favours good-looking people?

There is abundant research showing how we immediately judge people by appearances. Facial barcoding – the way we perceive faces – is hard-wired into our brains. Research into bias tells us that baby-faced people, for example, are associated with naivety, submissiveness, honesty, kindness and warmth*.

Attractive people are assumed to be more competent, intelligent, trustworthy and therefore more suitable candidates for a job or promotion. It goes without saying that none of these judgments have any basis in reality and, moreover, they have the potential to result in some bad decisions. Not only that, judging based on beauty unfairly rewards people for something that have nothing to do with ability.

Facial barcodes: How appearance affects pay

Aaron Gouveia, writing in the Huffington Post, lists some of the ways that looks impacts on pay:

  1. Tall people get paid more money: A 2004 study by Timothy Judge at the University of Florida found that for every inch of height, a tall worker can expect to earn an extra $789 per year.
  2. Blondes get paid more: A 2010 study from the Queensland University of Technology studied 13,000 Caucasian women and found blondes earn greater than seven percent more than female employees with any other hair colour. The study said the pay bump is equivalent to the boost an employee would generally see from one entire year of additional education.
  3. Handsome people are paid handsomely: A Yale University study finds employers pay a beauty premium to attractive employees. The beautiful workers earn an average of roughly 5 per cent more, while unattractive employees can miss out on up to almost 9 percent, according to the study.
  4. Fat people get paid less: Obese workers (those who have a Body Mass Index of more than 30) are paid less than normal-weight coworkers at a rate of US$8,666 a year for obese women, and US$4,772 a year for obese men, according to a George Washington University study. Other studies indicate obese women are even more likely to be discriminated against when it comes to pay, hiring and raises.
  5. If you’re too pretty, it’s a pity: If you’re an attractive man, don’t sweat it because you always enjoy an advantage, according to a 2010 study that appeared in the Journal of Social Psychology. However, women rated as very attractive face discrimination when applying to “masculine” jobs.

Impact of social media

In recent times social media has exacerbated this obsession with looks. Who hasn’t witnessed someone groomed and posing, against some glamorous backdrop, for their next Facebook posting? The thing is, they are probably wise to do so. Only 4 per cent of Australian recruiters don’t use social media in the hiring process, according to a Jobvite’s recruiting survey.

The use of editing software to enhance social media profile pictures is also increasingly common. Company profile photographs are usually photoshopped and in job hiring scenarios, there can be a surreal moment when a recruiter fails to match the candidate who has turned up for the interview, with the image of them online.  

Daniel Ezra is a consultant ophthalmologist and facial plastic surgeon at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London. Writing recently in CIPD’s People Management, he says the problems of unconscious bias extend beyond the hiring stage.

“I have recently noticed an increase in patients worrying that their colleagues and managers are making assumptions based on their appearance, and linking it to their ability to handle their responsibilities and workload. This might be down to several factors, including signs of ageing such as lines across the forehead or tiredness through bags under the eyes. These can mean their ‘look’ is misinterpreted, with colleagues or bosses mistakenly thinking they are tired, stressed or not coping with the job.”

Recognising our unconscious biases is, however, the first step towards trying to defuse their impact on hiring, and promotion choices.

6 ways to curb unconscious bias

  1. When interviewing, don’t trust your gut. Compare apples to apples by developing a set of questions, each accompanied by a rating scale of 1-5, that all candidates must answer.
  2. Create performance standards that are objective and measurable so they can be applied equally to all employees at the same level.
  3. Before making a decision in which you must compare one team member to another, share performance-only details with a third-party who does not know the team members.
  4. Don’t overcompensate, worrying so much about making a negative judgment based on bias that your evaluation is overly positive.
  5. Practice empathy. Imagine yourself in your team members’ shoes and always ask: “Would I think this scenario is fair?”
  6. Be an accessible, open communicator. If team members feel they can talk to you about sensitive issues, you’ll prevent bias situations from escalating.

Courtesy of Alexandra Levit, of the Wall Street Journal and the author of Blind Spots: The 10 Business Myths You Can’t Afford to Believe on Your New Path to Success.

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Musa Masenda
Musa Masenda

I enjoy the tips and insights..these help me in the way iconduct myself at work.

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