It’s commonly said that beauty is only skin deep, but research suggests that perceptions of a person’s appearance can profoundly affect their career and experiences at work.
From an early age, we are told not to judge a book by its cover. Yet as we grow up and make our way through the world, it’s something we do all the time.
Research shows that we often assess if someone is worthy of being our friend, partner or employee based on their physical attributes. And it goes a lot further than whether they’ve run a comb through their hair or tucked their shirt in.
In academic studies, research participants have indicated that genetic factors, such as height and facial structure, can determine their perception of another person’s attractiveness.
Subconsciously, these factors form our opinions of how trustworthy, confident, dominant, warm, socially skilled and capable we think someone is.
“Whether in HR or other industries, whether at work or other areas of life, few biases are as pervasive as the attractiveness bias,” says organisational psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, who has written extensively about beauty biases at work.
“Regardless of our biases in favour or against age, gender, race or social class groups, within these groups we will still favour attractive people, even when they are less talented, less hard-working or less suitable for a job.”
Before diving in, it’s worth stating that there’s no definitive measure of someone’s beauty in a conceptual sense.
When we refer to ‘attractive’ and ‘good-looking’ employees in this article, we’re talking about these terms in an academic sense – research participants have rated faces so academics can draw conclusions about how humans perceive beauty.
Blinded by the beauty bias
Our preference for certain facial types likely stems from the cues we draw about hormones, and health, say researchers Sean Talamas, Kenneth Mavor and David Perrett, from the University of St Andrews in the UK, in a paper titled, Blinded by Beauty: Attractiveness Bias and Accurate Perceptions of Academic Performance (2016).
“Research investigating attractiveness and the ‘good genes’ theory has argued that facial symmetry… sexual typicality, eyelid openness and mouth curvature, carotenoid coloration [yellow-orange skin pigmentation] in the face and adiposity [degree of fatness] may be attractive because of their relationship to health,” they write in the paper.
Andrew R. Timming FCAHR, Professor of HR Management and Deputy Dean, Research and Innovation in the School of Management at RMIT University, agrees with this.
We have a preference for healthy-looking people as we assume they are ideal sexual partners, he says.
“We tend to look at facial symmetry as a form of attractiveness,” says Timming.
“But you have to ask yourself why that’s the case. And the socio-biological explanation is that a symmetrical face is a signal of a lack of genetic pathology. So [that indicates] stability, and health and wellness.”
“We will still favour attractive people, even when they are less talented, less hard-working or less suitable for a job.” – Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, organisational psychologist and author
Another factor that likely plays into our modern-day biases is that during the early days of human civilisation, women tended to mate with taller men for protection, “in the event a sabre-toothed tiger attacked, or something like that”.
These days, he says, there’s a huge relationship between height and income, where shorter people tend to be lower earners than taller people.
“CEOs tend to be, by far, taller than your average person. And I think that holds for both women and men. There’s something about height that signals dominance and confidence,” he says.
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Lookism is developed in our early years
Scientific literature suggests that attractive children are socialised in ways that inadvertently allow them to get ahead later in life. For example, they might be more confident, charming, extroverted and likely to have their voices heard. This often dates back to childhood where individuals are either bolstered or held back due to their looks.
A study by academics at the University of Texas, Maxims or Myths of Beauty? (2000), found that 75 per cent of ‘attractive’ children were rated above average on factors such as interpersonal competence, social appeal and academic/developmental competence. This was compared to just 25 per cent of ‘unattractive’ children.
You can imagine how these conscious and subconscious perceptions would then play out across their lives. For example, research suggests that during university years, attractive students are perceived to be higher performers, which could skew a professor’s assessment of their actual skill set.
While these biases exist in the early years of our lives, they start to have economic impacts in adulthood, with research showing that less attractive people are less likely to be interviewed, hired and promoted. Even when they do enter the workforce, they continue to face barriers.
“People will lower their confidence when they get rejection signals from others,” says Chamorro-Premuzic. “Unfortunately, ‘lookism’ still dominates hiring and managing practices at work, so it’s sadly true that in the 21st century, despite efforts to increase diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, employees will still decrease their confidence, and [therefore their] competence, because of these discriminatory practices.”
Less attractive employees are also likely to make less money.
Eva Sierminska, a Research Economist at LISER, the Luxembourg Socio-Economic Institute, has researched this phenomenon. In her paper, Does It Pay to Be Beautiful? (2015), she found that attractive people were likely to earn 10-15 per cent more than those considered ‘homely’, even when they were performing the same job.
Less attractive employees often have to work much harder to receive the same salaries as their more attractive counterparts.
Gender also plays a role, she says.
“Attractiveness in men is associated with [perceivably] masculine categories such as confidence and [an employer’s] belief that this person can get the job done,” she says.
“This is not the case for women. Often, attractive women will need to put in extra work to show that not only are they attractive, but they also have the brains to perform the job.
Sierminska’s research also suggests the beauty bias is more likely to be present in specific roles.
“There are professions where appearance and presentation are valued, and good-looking people are seen as more confident and trustworthy,” she says. “Neuroscientists have confirmed this and found that when we see attractive people, the reward system in our brain is activated. If an attractive person works in sales, [employers might think] customers may be more inclined to interact with them and thus buy their products.”
Debiasing evaluation processes
HR and leaders need to have conversations about lookism at work because it’s a bias that so often flies under the radar, says Timming.
“Of course, you could make similar arguments to biases against legally regulated traits, such as race, gender and disability.
But there’s a much greater awareness of those legally regulated characteristics,” he says.
“We’re bombarded with messages surrounding sexism and racism. And oftentimes, because of these messages, we’re more aware of how we treat individuals of a different race or sex, and we proactively seek to correct those biases. But we’re not bombarded with messages of attractiveness discrimination.”
Chamorro-Premuzic says the solution is to debias our evaluation processes.
“Humans will always have subjective and morally questionable personal preferences for other humans, based on their own serendipitous emotions or personal value-fit. However, we also have the capacity to be aware of these biases and put in place methods, tools and systems to mitigate them, so as to increase both fairness and competitiveness,” he says.
In the social media age, people’s faces are plastered all over their LinkedIn profiles and online portfolios. It’s hard not to get a glimpse of them at some point during the assessment stages.
While it could be easy to remove physical markers by asking candidates not to attach photos of themselves to their CVs – a practice which is more common overseas than in Australia – or by discouraging recruiters from accessing candidate’s social media prior to making an assessment of their suitability, that only helps when finalising a shortlist.
What happens when that candidate is sitting in front of you in an interview?
“I would seriously encourage organisations to reduce the importance of the interview,” says Chamorro-Premuzic. “Machine learning can evaluate CVs faster and better than recruiters, and psychological assessments can detect soft skills and values-fit better than most interviewers. Sadly, no matter how much unconscious bias training interviewers may endure, they will never be able to ignore that the person in front of them is attractive.”
Timming says many scholars will suggest that implicit bias training is pointless.
“The reason they argue that is that these biases are built into the human psyche,” he says. “Although I’m sympathetic to the argument that it’s difficult to change the subconscious, it’s not impossible.”
He refers to a series of studies on ‘other race training’ where people go into a lab and are given a fake arm with a different skin colour to their own.
“They look down at that arm and they’re meant to imagine they are that race. They touch the arm and are asked to imagine they feel that touch. [That training] can reduce their implicit bias against individuals of that race,” he says.
“Now the question is, how do you make that stick? It’s possible that you leave that room and within an hour, day, or week, you’re back to your old implicit biases.
“So I’m not saying there’s a readymade solution to this. What I am saying is that there is some evidence that through well-designed psychological interventions, which could be scaled at an aggregate level, [these biases could be addressed].”
You couldn’t scale this experiment per se, he says, but there are virtual reality programs where people can enter a room and when they look in the mirror, they see themselves as a member of the other race.
“Those types of experiences could potentially have the same effects.”
Whether the solution to busting the beauty bias lies in technology or in greater visibility across an organisation, what’s clear from the decades of research is that this prejudice is just as pervasive and destructive as the many other unconscious biases that exist in our work environments.
And, to even get close to combating it at work, we need to deeply question our motives and perceptions in all the decisions we make – the big and the small.
A shorter version of this article first appeared in the April 2022 edition of HRM magazine.