• Niels Strohkirch

Is there a “Beauty Premium” in business success?



#Beauty #Success #Business


The Beauty Assumption


I am sure you have experienced this sneaky feeling that the other guy was promoted only because he was tall, slim and good looking despite being clueless about doing business. You yourself may be described as short, a bit chubby or simply as not good looking but a clear master in your field, even a professional who knows his stuff. Welcome to the unfair bias in the workplace. If you are less physically attractive than your competition, you run the risk of losing out to the “Beauty Premium” bonus, which a more attractive person may receive. The way it works varies from culture to culture and among countries. It is also different between men and women and whether you have a front desk, people skills job or behind the scenes. But this phenomenon is definitely at work everywhere. Some of your suspicion can be confirmed by Eva Sierminska of IZA World of Labor, who published a study supporting the fact that only being good in your job is not enough to be successful. 



Discrimination against less attractive people


Yes, you can call it discrimination. It is in most cases not even intended. Companies may even have HR rules which forbid focusing on only outer appearance but instead to pay more attention to a candidate's skills and personality. However, this is easier said than done. Like it or not, without realising it people make automatic judgements based on looks all the time.  


The study highlights that there is “substantial empirical evidence that supports the existence of employer discrimination against less-attractive or short workers.” The reasoning behind it is not really clear. It appears to be based on the assumption that the employer may assume that an attractive employee is more capable and productive than a not so attractive one. This is of course pure stereotype and  has nothing to do with someone's level of capability in carrying out a job. The other reason may be even more disturbing: the employer could simply prefer to work with someone who looks pleasant instead of  caring about their ability to get the job done. This is known as “taste-based-discrimination”. 


The situation is worse in a sales related job. A good looking gentleman or pretty lady will have a much higher chance of selling the luxury watch or car to the customer based solely on their looks and friendliness. That means if you are short and not perceived as pleasing to the eye, you will not only have a slimmer chance of getting the job but after you get it customers are less likely to buy from you. Hence, you have to work that much harder than a handsome colleague for the same success.  


If all things are equal but you feel it is an uphill battle at your work place, chances are it has nothing to do with your ability. It is all about “the visual impression one makes on someone else, which affects the way that person responds to them.” 



Does it pay to be good looking?


This is a really interesting aspect. Do you really get paid more if you are good looking? Can this be proven? It appears to be so in the labour market. But you must exclude the entrepreneurial side as some exceptionally rich tycoons considered as nerdy or even physically unattractive have astronomical wealth.  Or would you consider Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg physically attractive? 


Let us look at some studies from the US and Canada, where less attractive men would receive a 9% penalty in hourly earnings and those rated as above average would receive a 5% increase in hourly pay. Hence, we have a 14% difference in hourly pay for the same job, all just based on your looks. The strange thing here is that this could be proven for males only.  There was no statistical evidence that there is a similar effect based on attractiveness for women. But it is not clear whether there is no such effect or if it is a case of women who feel unattractive are less likely to enter the job market, and hence the gap is not as wide compared to men.  


Still, there are vast differences when you look at specific countries when it comes to beauty-wage premiums and penalties. It shows that the highest beauty-premiums are paid in Germany and China, especially for women. While you get the highest penalties for below average looks in Australia and the UK. 




Source: Sierminska, E., and X. Liu. “Beauty and the labor market.” In: Wright, J. D. (ed.). International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. 2nd edition. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2015 [2]. Chart by Kinslager.




Source: Sierminska, E., and X. Liu. “Beauty and the labor market.” In: Wright, J. D. (ed.). International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. 2nd edition. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2015 [2]. Chart by Kinslager.


The big challenge of defining attractiveness


So, what makes someone really attractive and what does not? If we know for certain, we could more or less do something about it easily. But the definition is subjective, it really depends on the person judging the attractiveness, as well as cultural backgrounds and I would assume the overall fashion of the day as well. 


Certain individual features make a person more attractive or individual features of a person considered endearing by a loved one may be seen as negative by others. This could apply to behaviour as well, There are no fixed standards in society  or shall we say the standards shift and change.

 

One thing is for sure, if you work in an environment where attractiveness plays an important role as in sales, services, general management and others, it certainly pays to be aware of the challenges and biases out there. In any case clothing, cosmetics and even plastic surgery (the last, I would only recommend if you have an actual physical issue) can make a big difference. Getting a nice haircut, dressing in well fitted and appealing suit with a nice shirt and being well groomed is definitely a big plus, regardless of whether you are more or less attractive in general. Maintaining your health at a manageable weight and avoiding obesity is always helpful. Like it or not, people initially judge us by our appearance and first impressions still count. 



Summary


Professional knowledge and work ethics are definitely important in the professional world but we cannot run from the fact that people judge us most by appearance and it makes a difference in our chances for success. It is important that for us to be aware of this bias and use it to our advantage. An already attractive person can become even more attractive and successful and a not so attractive person can bring himself or herself to the next level and achieve much more when they play the game right.

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