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‘Unattractive’ people are more likely to be ignored at work, research says

By Kate Neilson

While previous research has shown that ‘attractive’ employees are likely to win out in a job interview, new research suggests the barriers of ‘lookism’ don’t stop there.

It’s a powerful and pervasive form of workplace discrimination that doesn’t receive much attention. Researchers believe they’ve taken the first steps in uncovering how an employee’s perceived attractiveness affects their chances of participating in decisions in the workplace.

Associate professors Andrew Timming FCAHR and Chris Baumann, and senior professor of management Paul Gollan have found that appearance-based bias – known within the world of recruitment – also dictates whether or not employees will be listened to by their managers.

While some employees are more likely than others to want a say in decision-making factors – the aspiring CEO versus a newly-appointed junior, for example – little research has been conducted around the type of employee who is empowered to have a voice, irrespective of their desire to be heard.

“Appearance-based discrimination is as old as time,” says Timming. “People have always used appearance as a judgment cue. I suspect [it] has become even more important these days as a result of social media. In the age of the “selfie” we’re often just as concerned about our own appearance as others are of it.”

Facing the facts

You might be asking yourself the same question I did, how on earth do you measure someone’s attractiveness? It turns out the answer is more scientific than having a preference for blondes versus brunettes.

“[In our research] attractiveness is measured against a database of faces with some basic demographic information, then each face is rated by 2,600 other respondents on a scale,” says Timming.

It’s with this previously rated group of faces that Timming’s research begins. Participants, made up of 289 managers, were shown the faces of people aged  20-30. Older faces were excluded as age is negatively correlated with attractiveness, according to the report.

Managers were then presented with scenarios like: “Imagine an employee walks into your office and makes a suggestion about how an operational process could be improved. How likely would you be to take their advice?” They were then shown two faces, one attractive and one less attractive, with a variety in gender and race. Managers were then asked, on a scale of 1-7, how likely they’d be to act on an employee’s suggestion: 1 being not likely, 7 being extremely likely.

Attractive employees were more likely to have their opinions actioned at a management level.

“Appearance-based discrimination is as old as time. People have always used appearance as a judgment cue.”

Discrimination that transcends racism?

Surprisingly, female voices were listened to more than male voices, and there was no difference between white and non-white employees. It was only when the introduction of an attractive variable was introduced that Timming and his team noticed a difference.

You might be scratching your head at this stage. This result goes against everything we’ve ever read about marginalised voices in our communities. But Timming has a hypothesis for such a result.

“One possible explanation of this finding is what’s called the Social Desirability effect…. It’s possible that managers thought they realised what this study was about, thinking about the best socially desirable response – which is that they don’t discriminate based on gender or race – but they were unable to detect that there were different levels of attractiveness,” says Timming.

“The finding that non-white and female employees do not suffer from a “voice deficit” in the workplace may be artifact of the respondents’ attempts to conceal their biases.”

Interestingly, the gender of the managers played no part in their decision; female and male managers were equally as likely to ignore less attractive employees.

Recruitment barriers

It’s already been established that those considered less attractive often lose out on employment opportunities, and that attractive folk will rise through the ranks at a faster pace, enjoying the financial compensation that brings.

But one interesting study suggests there is one employment scenario in which attractive people lose out – if they’re applying for a low-level “undesirable job”. This suggests recruiters believe that the attractive candidate might not be satisfied working in that particular role, even though they applied for it.

It appears recruitment bias is rife on both ends of the stick.

Robert Half director, Nicole Gorton, says this unconscious bias is a surefire way to miss out on high-qualified talent.

“Hiring managers need to invest time and thought in the process to ensure every candidate receives a fair chance. These measures should go beyond the company’s existing diversity and anti-discrimination policies, which regulate behaviour rather than thought. Recruitment bias, being unconscious, is not the same as discrimination. It therefore requires a different set of approaches.”

“The finding that non-white and female employees do not suffer from a “voice deficit” in the workplace may be artifact of the respondents’ attempts to conceal their biases.”

How can HR help to combat ‘lookism’?

While Timming and his research team are confident in their results, they’ve added an important caveat: more research in this space is needed and it’s important to gather data straight from the employees’ mouths on whether or not they feel ignored.

They also say the onus is on the employer to incite change.

“It would be just as nonsensical to recommend that employees modify their appearance to makes themselves more attractive as it would be to recommend that female employees present themselves as male or black in order to reduce perceived discrimination. The fault lies in the employer, not the employee.”

So, how can HR help? HRM posed the question to Nicholas Vayenas, managing director at Liquid HR.

Vayenas is no stranger to lookism. He recalls working at a club during his student days and says the manager would only hire “attractive women” to work behind the bar. This is, unfortunately, a common tale.

“Education is key. The obvious answer is to make sure people are aware of the brains preference for making snap, bias decisions. It’s at this point we can catch ourselves and acknowledge what we might be doing.

“I recall an excellent piece of advice I was given when undertaking interviewer training many years ago. The facilitator stressed that we shouldn’t be seduced (professionally speaking) by the candidate who ‘looked the part’ and/or ‘spoke with confidence’. His message was to scrutinise the appropriateness of the candidate’s answers and not to be distracted by façade,” says Vayenas.

The researchers are careful to mention that it’s much harder to legislate against appearance bias than it is racism or sexism.

“First, attractiveness is generally more subjective than, for example, race, gender, disability, or age, making it difficult to identify victims. Second, whilst it is conceivable that governments could legislate against wage discrimination, it is highly unlikely that they would intervene to protect employee voice. For this reason, the most sensible way of tackling the discrimination identified in this paper is to promote bias awareness among organisational decision-makers,” the paper reads.

Timming’s specific advice to HR is to question their choices.

“When you first realise that you may be discriminating against people inadvertently, this can give you pause to think in an employment context. Ask yourself: is this person really the most qualified or knowledgeable? Or is he or she just the most attractive?”

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