Research studies occasionally surface claiming to prove that attractive-looking people are favoured in job applications over less attractive ones. But a recent study has claimed that for certain types of jobs, good-looking men may be at a disadvantage.
Stereotypes still exist
Good-looking people aren’t necessarily perceived as being more competent than other people. Some research has found that women in particular are often perceived as being less competent if they are attractive. The ‘dumb blonde’ stereotype still exists in some circles, although it may be less prominent than it used to be.
However, past research has generally found that good looks are advantageous in obtaining a job in the first place. For example, when shown photos of attractive and unattractive job applicants, potential recruiters have tended to be more likely to hire the attractive ones.
Good looks a disadvantage when competition involved?
A recent study by the University of Maryland, USA, found that attractive men were perceived as more competent than unattractive men by both male and female evaluators. However, this did not mean they were more likely to be offered a job.
In situations where competition within the workplace was an issue, such as sales jobs, attractive men tended to be less likely to be offered the job. Apparently they were perceived as a career threat to the people hiring them. The latter appeared to believe that attractive men would be treated more favourably than them in the workplace, because others perceived them as being more competent – whether true or not. But if the role involved collaborating with the evaluator, the applicant was perceived as likely to help the evaluator’s career, by means of being associated with a ‘competent’ person.
The university’s study asked researchers to classify the experimental group of job applicants as either attractive or unattractive, then asked a group of recruiters how likely they were to hire each person. In summary, attractive men were more likely to be hired in ‘team’ roles but less likely to be hired in ‘competitive’ roles.
Are attractive people more selfish?
Another study, by Brunel University in London, found people of both genders who were regarded as physically attractive tended to be perceived as more selfish than less attractive people. However, when the attractive people in this study were analysed, it was found this perception was actually correct, to a greater degree for men than women. The study used the term ‘egalitarianism’ to refer to their attitudes towards other people.
Unconscious bias at work
The University of Maryland researchers emphasised that the recruiters who took part in their study were completely unaware of the bias they displayed. They unconsciously rated the job applicants as competent or less competent according to their looks and unconsciously took looks into account when making hiring decisions. Most would probably vehemently (and correctly) deny any intentional discrimination on their part.
What it means for HR practitioners
The Victorian Equal Opportunity Act 2010 makes it unlawful to discriminate in employment in Victoria on the ground of a person’s physical features, which includes their height, weight, etc. Federal and all state/territory equal opportunity legislation outlaws discrimination on grounds that include race, disability, age and gender, all of which may indirectly affect perceptions of physical appearance, e.g. younger people are perceived as being more attractive than older ones.
Unconscious bias has received increased scrutiny in recent years, particularly in the context of diversity management strategies. Many organisations now use training courses, either in-house or commercially provided, that assist employees such as recruiters to identify their unconscious biases and take steps to address them.
Recommended practice is to continually monitor recruitment and hiring practices to look for evidence of any possible biases occurring and ensure that recruiters are provided with training and other support to prevent or deal with the issues.
Failing to do the above can be costly. In one widely published case, an airline was found to have indirectly discriminate against job applicants on the grounds of age. The airline was trying to promote a ‘fun’ image, but its recruiters unconsciously assumed that young people were more likely to promote that image than older ones, with the result that very few applicants over the age of 35 were offered jobs.