One of the groups I belong to on LinkedIn is called HR Matters (created by Rowena Morais, the editor of an HR-focused magazine by that name headquartered in Southeast Asia). Another member of the group, John Baldino, recently posted a link to an article on his blog called What Makes You Beautiful (the title, as I now understand, of a song by a band called One Direction – I can only assume that John has teenagers in his house).
The focus of John’s post is the fact that businesses are biased toward good-looking people, and that it’s a largely unconscious but extremely widespread bias. People who are considered more attractive, studies show, are more likely to get hired in the first place, get paid more on average for doing the same job, and are more likely to get promoted sooner. I only kind of knew this was true, but John’s post really brought it to my conscious attention. And a quick stroll around the internet yields dozens of articles and papers exploring this bias.
So – as I generally do when something new comes to my attention – I started to pull it apart. And I believe that what makes this particular area of bias difficult is that it’s a mixture of some reasonable and justified assumptions with some unreasonable and unjustified assumptions.
Reasonable and justified: part of what people consider “attractive” is simply good grooming, which is completely within a person’s control, and is – I believe – a marker for other positive traits. For example, if a candidate is showered and shaved, wearing clothes and shoes that are clean and in good repair, with clean hair that doesn’t look like he or she has just rolled out of bed – I would consider that attractive. And I would infer (I think reasonably) that his or her attention to these aspects of self-presentation implies a sense of respect for the meeting, an understanding of expected professional behavior, and a basic focus on order and excellence. Another part of what people consider attractive is behavioral (and, again, completely with the person’s control). That is, I find people attractive who look me in the eye, stand and sit tall, don’t fidget, listen well, can converse easily, have a sense of humor. These things demonstrate both self-confidence and emotional intelligence – both of which are associated with professional and interpersonal effectiveness.
Unreasonable and unjustified. Unfortunately, I believe most of us also make unwarranted positive assumptions about aspects of attractiveness that are congenital, and have little or no bearing on a person’s abilities. For instance, if a person is overweight, has thinning hair, has unsymmetrical or disfigured facial features, is older, is disabled in some way – I fear that many people automatically assume that person is less intelligent, less confident, or less capable than someone who is slim, thick-haired, young, smooth-featured and whole.
And that’s the part of this that we need to get conscious about; the assumptions we need to question. To the extent you or I are making judgments about people’s qualifications based on these “luck of the draw” kinds of physical attributes – we need to stop doing that.
And as a little mantra, to help remind yourself that these characteristics are a lousy basis for judging someone as a professional or as a human being, repeat after me: Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.