May the Best (Looking) Man Win: The Unconscious Role of Attractiveness in Employment Decisions
MetadataShow full item record
[Excerpt] In 1972, Karen Dion, Ellen Berscheid, and Elaine Walster set out to determine whether people hold “stereotyped notions of the personality traits possessed by individuals of varying attractiveness.” The results of the study were astonishing: based only on the photographs provided, participants predicted attractive subjects would be happier, possess more socially desirable personalities, practice more prestigious occupations, and exhibit higher marital competence. Their findings were published in an article entitled “What is Beautiful is Good” and gave rise to an enduring theory of the same name. In the decades since the Dion et al. experiment, the “what is beautiful is good” hypothesis has played a particularly meaningful role in occupational studies. Given the high-stakes nature of job acquisition, many researchers have asked, for example, whether attractive job candidates are more likely to be hired than their peers. In short, attractive individuals will receive more job offers, better advancement opportunities, and higher salaries than their less attractive peers—despite numerous findings that they are no more intelligent or capable. This article aims to explore the sources and potential resolution of appearance-based employment decisions. In other words, now that we know appearance-based employment discrimination exists, where does it come from and what do we do about it? Part I examines the psychology of attractiveness, exploring what registers as attractive and what unconscious responses attractiveness commonly evokes. It begins with a definition of beauty in terms of both biological and performed traits and concludes with a discussion of beauty facts versus fictions. Part II provides an overview of existing legal remedies to victims of appearance-based discrimination and explains why legal reform is an ill-suited solution. After ruling out the law, this article concludes that appearance-based employment decisions should be curbed internally, via management and human resources efforts.
HR Review; Human Resources; Candidate Attractiveness; Employment Decisions; Hiring Decisions; Starting Salary; Promotion Opportunity; Discrimination; Bias
Required Publisher Statement: © Cornell HR Review. This article is reproduced here by special permission from the publisher.