Should Looks Matter in the Workforce? They Do.

by Darwin on November 30, 2010

Have you ever wondered why most of the pharmaceutical sales reps you either know or encounter in doctor’s offices in some way resemble Ken or Barbie?  Aside from being “charismatic” and outgoing, they’re usually really good looking.  Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t recall ever seeing a morbidly obese rep in the bunch.  It’s undeniable to casual observers that appearance plays a major role in who gets certain types of jobs, who gets promoted, and who doesn’t.  What about the data?

Studies on Looks in the Workplace Vary

There was an interesting piece in the New York Times today showing that attractive women are actually discriminated against – in Israel at least.  Without rehashing all the data, by using a fairly large data set of similarly experienced mock resumes with pictures attached, attractive men seemed to have an edge in getting interviews while attractive women were at a disadvantage.  The numbers appeared to be statistically significant.  Like all studies, if you peel back the onion a bit though, there may be some flaws and perhaps a sweeping conclusion can’t be drawn.

  • Is there something cultural going on here?  Israel’s culture is different than the US which differs from Japan.  Should the results from this study be a statement on Israel or humans in general?
  • Were the resume screeners overwhelmingly women?  Of course they’d react positively to handsome men and perhaps not so to women more attractive than themselves?  Hat tip to commenter.
  • What were the jobs the candidates were applying for?  If it’s an engineering role, perhaps the stereotype that attractive women don’t usually end up in those types of roles was at play.  However, if it was for pharma sales, you think the results would be the same?  They’d actually FAVOR plain looking sales reps over hotties?  I don’t think so.

So, the study may have left a bit to be desired and may have been designed with an agenda from the start – who knows.  Much data points to the contrary though.  Abercrombie and Fitch for instance found itself embroiled in multiple lawsuits against not only minorities, but other Caucasian employees that claimed they were stuck in the stock room because of the way they looked for violating their “Look Policy” (UK Lawsuit).  I can vouch for this first-hand, as a bunch of guys in my house in college got a job there one year when the “big shirt” was the in thing and we wanted discounts on clothes.  Most of us got to be greeters, folders, whatever you call the guys in the front, whereas our “big guy” was the only one working in the stock room.  We didn’t really think about it consciously at first, but within a few months most of us had quit or been fired by then (college goofballs) and we put two and two together.  You had to have “the look” to work up front.

Size Matters – For the CEO

A well-documented phenomena occurs in the boardroom.  There are very obvious and consistent data pointing to height as a factor in leadership roles.  As outlined in the excellent book Blink, in the US, about 15% of all men are 6′ tall or greater. Among CEOs at Fortune 500 companies, that number is 58% ! Further, in the overall US population, 4% of adult men are 6’2″ or taller. Among the CEO sample, 30% were 6’2″ or taller.  Evidently, the tallest guy wins.  People try to attribute subconscious factors to this, like a tall man seems more “powerful” or leader-like.  Whatever the underlying cause, the effect is undeniable.

Some Other Titillating Questions

Excuse me, I just couldn’t help it.  But seriously, a few general questions that apply to all of us.  In the US, it is uncommon to attach pictures to resumes, whereas it was the norm in Israel, which lent itself to a reasonable study design.

  • That being said, in the US, do you think attaching pictures to resumes should become mainstream?  Or could it open up doors to potential discrimination?
  • Do you post your picture in your LinkedIn account or other social networks employers can see?  Do you think that might influence their decisions?
  • Do looks matter in your line of work?  Should they?
Disclosure: I’m an average looking guy, and I’m nowhere near 6′ tall.  No, I don’t feel I ever lost a job to a better-looking person.  I work in technical/engineering roles, so you know how that goes :>

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

retirebyforty December 1, 2010 at 2:56 pm

haha! I am also in the technical field and looks doesn’t matter much here at the grunt level.


Darwin December 2, 2010 at 9:04 am

No doubt…


Financial Samurai December 2, 2010 at 2:02 am

Who was the woman who got fired and is suing for being “too hot”??


Darwin December 2, 2010 at 9:05 am

Oh yeah, too funny! Well, that was her claim. Absurd, there are tons of beautiful women in the workforce and she isn’t one of them. Just lookin for a handout.


Funny about Money December 4, 2010 at 8:01 pm

Some years ago when I was teaching an upper-division writing course that was full of business majors, we always did a resume- and cover-letter project. I would have a human resources exec come in and talk to my classes about what works and what didn’t, and occasionally one of the students (they were mostly adults) would also be in HR — they also would get a chance to harangue the class.

To a person, these HR experts would tell students never to send a picture of themselves and never to give any clue to their race, religion, state of health, or anything else that employers are legally forbidden to ask about.

One semester a man spoke up and said that during a long period of unemployment he learned how to insert a photo in his resume and so (lacking all the wisdom he was learning in our course) he sent out a bunch of applications with the illustrated resume. He was pretty discouraged by this point, having been applying endlessly with no luck.

To his amazement, back came a slew of invites to interviews! He quickly landed a good job, but even after he was employed, the expressions of interest continued. He said that two years later he was still getting responses, from people who had dropped his illustrated resume in a file and pulled it out next time they had an opening.

Does this have meaning for us? I dunno. He was a clean-cut, fairly ordinary-looking (nothing gorgeous, but not unattractive either) thirtyish white male.


Darwin December 5, 2010 at 1:45 am

Most interesting. If anything, maybe it stood out as unique since it is so in common in the US.


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