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What does it really matter if companies hire based on looks?

Julian Smith2

Julian Smith

One of my friends was recently looking for a job in retail, and was told by somebody that with his looks, he should apply for a job in a well-known, high-end fashion brand. It made me wonder about the same friend’s options if he hadn’t been born quite so good looking; would they have had the nerve to suggest a low-end, down-market not-so-fashionable brand, or a run-of-the-mill retail outlet? Discrimination has always been an ugly thing, something to avoid, and even worse when it is based on a factor that you simply can’t help, such as your sex, your age, your sexual preferences, or in this case, your looks. We’re all used to the saying “if your face fits”, but what are your options if it doesn’t? Remember the furore caused by accusations that Abercrombie & Fitch were only hiring ‘good-looking staff’, which was subsequently investigated by a French rights watchdog (Daily Telegraph, 24 July 2013)? Well, regardless of the veracity of that particular claim, perhaps hiring based on looks happens more often than we think…

Be honest with yourself for a second. When is the last time you watched television, without judging somebody’s appearance, either positively or negatively? Or have you ever uttered the phrase “I know why they got their job…” when looking at somebody incompetent but pleasing to the eye. And when’s the last time you saw an “ugly” model? Let’s all be honest for a second, and admit that it’s a part of human nature to judge based on looks – in fact, the fashion industry has created, huge empires based on little else – but how widespread is it, and more importantly how can you beat it?

I suspect it’s pretty widespread, but on a more subtle level. If you don’t agree, let me convince you! Conjure up in your mind what the following look like: an air stewardess, a corporate front-of-house receptionist, a barman in a trendy bar, a TV anchor man, an actor playing a detective in an American ‘cop drama’, etc. Actually, the list of professions where it ‘helps’ to be good looking is almost endless. There are actually logical reasons why some trades require their workers to be towards the more aesthetically pleasing end of the looks spectrum; sales people have to use their winning charms to secure the business; beauticians have to provide inspiration and aspiration to others, and in certain cases (notably pop music, for example), beauty (together with a certain amount of flesh-revealing) can (and often does) mask a real lack of talent…

If you’re still not sure, ask yourself when was the last time you saw somebody ‘cosmetically challenged’ in one of the above positions? Going one step further, have you ever seen somebody with a disfigurement in such a role? I suspect not.

At the end of the day, it is human nature to judge based on a number of factors, but looks or ‘attractiveness’ to give it a more scientific-sounding term, is probably the most basic and instinctive factor, giving rise to feelings such as immediate ‘dislike’, ‘mistrust’, ‘creepiness’ or ‘fear’ on the negative side, or ‘warmth’, ‘friendliness’, ‘honesty’ or even ‘sexiness’! It is only after you start talking to someone or listening to their voice that you get a chance to revisit your first impression based on looks – and that’s when initial assumptions such as ‘sexiness’ can be shot down in flames! Somebody whose look made them seem initially intimidating might turn out to be a pussy cat; somebody who looks boring might turn out to be funny and honest, and positively attractive once they start to talk, and when it comes to politicians, initial support based on good looks will rapidly fade unless they’re clever and know how to play the game!

So if we think about it, this is good news! Whilst we initially judge on looks, and often in the first few seconds, it is looks alone, this rapidly gives way to other factors. The longer somebody spends in our company, or the longer we spend appraising somebody else, the less likely looks are to enter the equation.

This means that in an interview situation, any judgement based on looks will soon give way to a decision based on what is actually said, and how well it is said. If you’re going for an interview, making sure you’ve researched the role, prepared for the interview, and can answer all the questions, will give you an air of confidence that ensures that looks don’t matter – as long as you’ve made the most of what you have been given, and have dressed appropriately for the occasion! Confidence comes with knowledge, preparation and practice, not a layer of moisturiser and some hair gel. And even better news, confidence is also sexier and much more appealing than skin-deep beauty…

As interviewers, whilst you might initially make a favourable judgement based on somebody’s appearance, you’ll soon decide against them if that’s all they have to offer – unless you’re recruiting for an industry where looks are more important than any other factor.

But for anybody beautiful reading this, please don’t think I’m belittling your achievement in getting your dream job. I would never suggest that anybody got their position based on looks – unless looks were an important part of the profile. Ironically, for some professions, I would argue that good looks might put you at a disadvantage – and good looking people will almost certainly have to compete as hard as everybody else for a lot of jobs – and in some cases, they may have to prove that they’re not ‘just a pretty face’. In fact a great deal of research has been carried out to determine whether or not good looking people have it easier than the rest of us – but the finding are wholly inconclusive.

So, it seems, we’re back at the beginning – and perhaps, yes, many companies probably do hire based on looks, at least in part. But perhaps they have their own reasons for so doing. Models don’t need to speak; they’re hired to represent fantasy, aspiration and perhaps, perfection. The same might be said of actors who are probably hired to boost ratings, pop stars who are hired to sell records, or others who represent industries where looking good is a huge part of the equation.

Many companies don’t need to admit that this takes place, because we know that it does – so why single out some companies, rather than others? Why can’t we leave modelling to those who want to be models, and focus instead on other industries, other roles and other opportunities? Most companies are sensible enough to hire for the job that needs doing, and that means looking past the superficial and the physical, to explore the talents of the interviewee.

So, what does it really matter if companies hire based on looks? At the end of the day, if looks is all that a prospective employer was interested in, I’m not sure I would feel comfortable working there…but that’s easy to say when I probably wouldn’t get the job in the first place!


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