Ugly People Want to Work for You—Now What?
By Laurie Ruettimann
If you want to be offended and appalled by lookism in the workforce, you can hop on the Internet and search for the alleged disgusting and unseemly behaviors of Dov Charney, CEO of American Apparel, accused of firing employees he found unattractive. Meanwhile, Dennis “Chip” Wilson, founder of athletic-sportswear company Lululemon, fought allegations of lookism for years before finally stepping down as CEO last year, shortly after saying that some people are too fat to wear his company’s clothes. His disdain for tubbiness has allegedly carried over to his hiring practices.
The CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch is also a piece of work. Mike Jeffries, who oversees more than one thousand retail stores that focus on casual wear for consumers ages 18 to 22, has been accused of creating a superficial, youth-obsessed, hyper-sexualized work environment. How does Jeffries answer his critics? He explains, “[W]e hire good-looking people in our stores. Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don’t market to anyone other than that.”
These and other leaders have been justifiably attacked in the media for being tone-deaf and sexist. But plenty of companies have similar recruiting, hiring, and branding philosophies. They’re just quieter about such things.
While I am not Gloria Allred and am in no position to offer legal advice, generally speaking, ugly is not a protected class. Yes, there are laws that prohibit employment decisions based on race, religion, national origin, age, and sex that can fold into the amorphous and misty world of appearance, but those rules say nothing about attractiveness. (Except in Michigan and San Francisco, where obesity is a protected class.)
Most HR leaders will deny that beauty and attractiveness are on the radar during the recruiting process. They will tell you that a Wharton MBA trumps appearance, and they will sincerely believe that statement. But whether you’re consciously aware of it, you probably use the “what is beautiful is good” stereotype every day to make decisions on employment, opportunity, and even compensation. While you may think you are operating on a higher evolutionary level than your ancestors—or even competitors—ruled by their lizard brains, a quick and dirty Internet query provides an extensive selection of books, academic studies, and peer-reviewed articles that explain correlations between beauty and workplace decisions.
For example, the University of Chicago’s Dario Maestripieri authored a study that found beautiful people have a higher sales-per-employee ratio. Many of us also perceive good-looking employees as hard workers, which explains why Daniel Hamermesh, author of Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful and the father of pulchrinomics (yes, there’s an official term for the economic study of beauty), found that beautiful people earn 3 to 4 percent more based on their looks alone.
Additionally, one recent (albeit somewhat contested) study out of the University of Wisconsin suggests that CEOs with a higher “Facial Attractiveness Index” can command higher share values for their companies, while they also reap “beauty premiums” in their compensation. Meanwhile, evidence by evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazwa indicates a positive relationship between smarts and beauty.
It is, of course, possible that beauty helps build other traits, such as charm and negotiating ability, that lead to success. And under certain circumstances and for certain roles—mainly involving jobs that involve external personal interaction—I think it is realistic and practical to tell your recruiting team to stop wasting time with unattractive candidates.
Unfortunately, I do worry that the beauty-as-good bias carries beyond sales professionals, receptionists, and waiters. Without explicit orders, many talent-acquisition teams pick up on subconscious queues and adopt their leadership teams’ preferences. Research shows that these well-intentioned HR experts inadvertently apply an unfair standard of attractiveness to a whole host of jobs, from marketing professionals to technologists to even scientists who work in laboratories.
One way to avoid the pitfalls of lookism is to outsource and eliminate human dilly-dallying from the recruiting process by using cloud-based recruiting software. Rather than argue with your local HR rep on the merit of your candidate-selection process, a hiring manager can search a content library for a job description, then post it on a bevy of websites with one click. An algorithm scans résumés, creates candidate pools, and recommends individuals most likely to match all sorts of competencies, corporate values, and cultural preferences. As any software vendor will tell you, it really is just that easy.
Disappointingly, sometimes organizations use technology to embrace and exploit the beauty bias. Websites such as BeautifulPeople.com offer recruiting platforms to help companies in the retail and hospitality industries hire the most attractive candidates. The value proposition is simple: Hiring pretty people in customer-facing roles will give your organization a competitive advantage.
I do wish there were definitive research demonstrating causation, rather than just correlation, of the beauty bias and success. The conversation about how to overcome lookism would become a little easier. However, the beauty bias—often masked as likability—isn’t going away.
But there’s a reason why we tell applicants to jump through hoops and participate in time-consuming interviews—even when it would be cheaper and easier to tell candidates, “Nothing personal, but all things being equal, you are just too ugly to work here.” We ask people to jump through hoops during the interview process because it is imperative to appeal to the better angels of our nature and hire based on knowledge, skills, and abilities. (Additionally, this former punk-rock HR lady would never encourage anyone to acquiesce to the male gaze.)
The number-one job of your HR team is to help you comply with the spirit and letter of the law while reducing risk, minimizing labor costs, and maximizing worker productivity. While research shows a correlation between attractiveness and per-employee revenue, I believe it unseemly—and bad business practice—to take into account a candidate’s looks. As your kids would say, “Don’t be that guy.”
Short of automating the hiring process and hiring solely based on an algorithm, your local HR generalist has a role to play in the circumvention of discrimination bias in your company. Interviewing is a learned skill. Your HR leadership team knows that it’s tough for anyone, let alone an amateur, to dive beneath the physical surface of appearance to thoughtfully consider a candidate’s knowledge, skills, and abilities. And so your HR team can easily provide ongoing training and coaching on competency-based hiring models that zero in on capabilities.
There are some CEOs out there who run complex, customer-facing organizations. There are certain standards that apply to employees—from uniform clothing standards to rules about facial hair—that ensure a consistent customer experience with the brand. Those expectations are often fair, realistic, and compliant with federal, state, and local employment legislation. But hiring for looks is something more amorphous—and potentially insidious.
Attractiveness does not have to be the third rail of recruiting, because it doesn’t belong in recruiting. In fact, for the most part, it doesn’t belong in a civilized discussion about anything in the corporate world beyond art and entertainment. Besides, as Daniel Hamermesh also points out, attractiveness may be overrated. His studies show that education trumps beauty when it comes to one’s overall lifetime earning potential. I guess there’s a certain beauty in knowing that.
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