Physical attractiveness has been in the news quite a bit lately. Abercrombie & Fitch have been excoriated because of the statements of the president of the company about only wanting attractive people wearing their brand. And now the website Beautifulpeople.com is causing a hub-bub by offering a website that features only “beautiful” candidates to employers. The reaction to it has not been a positive one based on the comments posted on the Mashable article. Here is my take on the good, the bad and the ugly about hiring only beautiful people.
Attractive versus Ugly
There has been a great deal of research that has shown that attractive people do “better” than unattractive people at least in American business. Most sales people tend to be higher on the attractive scale. Companies use attractive models to push their products. I wrote about this previously in ISM Number Seven: Ugly-ISM. Scientific research has shown more positive reactions to “attractive” faces, even at the level of infants, suggesting an innate tendency to be attracted to “beautiful.” As we grow our definition of “attractive” and “beautiful” change with our own circumstances, current tastes, and our judgment of the “internal beauty” of people we meet.
In the days before Linked In profiles résumé counselors would suggest to “attractive” candidates that they send their picture along with their résumé knowing that it would most likely be stricken from the document but would have a chance to interject a positive bias. The same thing works today with our LI profiles. We want to have a nice looking photo on our profiles in order to project the most positive impression we can. We are trying to introduce some positive bias to help us with jobs, contacts, business or whatever. But is this bias illegal?
The “good” in this sense is that “ugly” or “attractive are not protected categories under Title VII of the Civil Rights act. Thus companies can, and do, make decisions based upon the physical attractiveness of candidates, at least attractive in their eyes. It promotes a brand. It can even be deemed to be job related if their products are things like clothing, swimsuits, make-up, etc. So from an employer stand point you are not violating any Federal statute if you use physical attractiveness as a criterion. You just have to make sure your definition goes across racial, national origin, religious, and gender lines. Hmmm… I seem to have missed a couple of protected categories. What about disability and pregnancy? How does that enter into the mix?
From the employer’s standpoint the “bad’ aspect of this that the EEOC is looking at making “being too attractive” a form of bias. I wrote about this in Would You Like to be Declared Ugly Enough to Be a Protected Category? They are actually investigating creating a protected category of “ugly”. Anyone want to step up and claim protection under that category? Read that post for the absurdity of this action by the EEOC.
But as I mentioned above there are two potential areas that an employer can get in trouble with if they hire solely on the basis of physical attractiveness. The biggest of these is disability. The ADA requires us to give consideration to candidates with disabilities if they can perform the essential functions of the job with, or without, a reasonable accommodation. Take the example of a sales rep with a stellar sales record who has become disfigured by burns. He would be considered disabled under the ADA. He would be able to demonstrate all the abilities of handling sales because of his previous record. Yet due to the disfigurement many employers might be hesitant to hire him. Doing so solely on the basis of that disability would probably lead to a lawsuit. The other area that would be problematic when hiring on physical attraction would be pregnancy. I don’t think I will say much more about that one.
The ugly aspect of this for employers is that you may suffer the same fate that Abercrombie & Fitch have suffered and that BeautifulPeople.com is starting to feel. To most people discrimination of any sort is wrong. I think they are incorrect. I think all employers need to be discriminatory in their hiring. They need to have a bias toward ability and skills. They need to discriminate on the basis of capability. They need to discriminate on the basis of “fit” to the culture or on the basis of “lack of fit” if that is what you are trying do.
It is good to be good looking (or so I am told). But as the saying goes, beauty is only skin deep and looks fade with age. Hiring someone on the basis of their looks will be a fleeting success. Despite the punch line of a sexist joke the secretary that gets hired most often is the capable one. If we direct our efforts to determining if someone is capable of doing our jobs we will be more successful in finding people who promote our business. If they happen to be more attractive, well that could be considered a bonus.