I often wonder why we value surface characteristics in our employees. Don't act so outraged! We do. Our culture loves good looks, well-dressed, well-spoken people. Business Insider, along with a number of other articles, reveal statistics about compensation for attractive versus non-attractive people (http://www.businessinsider.com/attractive-people-are-more-successful-2012-9). Earnings can be up to four times higher for pretty people. Is that just a coincidence? I don't think so. We are the HR professionals that are involved in the hiring process.
But, even deeper, those pretty people are more likely to advance up the corporate ladder over the unattractive ones. I have not seen nor created succession plans with attractiveness quotients, but somewhere our biases are creeping in. How? Well, what makes something beautiful?
Herein is the rub. What are the criteria? Nice smile/teeth, wavy hair, strong chin, great figure? Uncomfortable, I know, but somewhere someone is making the decision as to what is pretty. Many moons ago, I worked for a national restaurant chain. I was "encouraged" to hire "the pretty ones" as hostesses and don't hire guys for those roles. Um, really? By whose criteria is pretty? Mine. No problem. Needless to say there were all kinds of hosts and hostesses hired in those roles...I saw lots of pretty people.
Often, our interaction with beauty is not as obvious as that example shows. Mostly, it's a psychological affinity to a certain look or feature. It may have no impact on the skills, abilities or knowledge that the employee or candidate has (obviously, if the role is that of a model, then it does!). There is no real performance appraisal box to check on how pretty someone is (but there may be one on hygiene). And yet, again, we're paying pretty people 3-4 times more than average/unattractive people.
Bias is a tough thing to address internally. Most biases are not egregious. If an employer does not want to hire someone in a protected class because he/she is in a protected class, then that company opens themselves up to lawsuit, penalties and a host of other issues, not to mention how incredibly ridiculous that is. The government has seen to it to address those groups of people that need protection, and rightly so. However, as far as I know, there is no pending legislation concerning the protection of unattractive people. I know that may be shocking, considering the amount of bills under review, but perhaps part of the issue is classifying who is unattractive. I mean, do you want to be the congressperson from "x" state to say "I ain't pretty?" Those of us who may consider ourselves average or unattractive remain unprotected.
As HR professionals, we have to be conscious of this. What makes someone beautiful in our organizations? Think of qualities like production, teamwork, leadership, work ethic, loyalty, etc. Aren't they beautiful qualities? Wouldn't you rather have an "unattractive" employee that makes a real difference in the productivity and positivity of the organization rather than an "attractive" person who brings little excellence to the job? Of course! So, let's be sure that our systems align appropriately.
I know you may be thinking "why is he talking about this?" Well, two reasons. First, upon doing a simple Google search of the topic, I came across at least 10 pages of results with different articles and studies for each page. Wow. And secondly, I like to spend time instructing and coaching college-aged students. Last night, in fact, I had the privilege of presenting to a group from Rowan University. There were so many great ideas and such good energy that it was invigorating to me. After doing some of the research I did in prep for this blog, I thought about companies that might not engage with such bright individuals due to some surface-reaction to attractiveness. Now, I'm not saying that there were unattractive students in that class last night, but rather, I thought about the personal preferences of the hiring managers that will interview these seniors preventing them from being hired.
It's silly, really, but we are a society obsessed with looks. We value people based on this. Despite the fact that we fight the Miss America pageant and the like, we still tune in to see who wins. We say we don't allow something so superficial as looks to impact business decisions, but the actions show differently. Check your biases. Check the biases in certain departments. Check the cultural biases - beauty, age, sex, clothing, etc. There are real ways that we unintentionally discriminate based on non-skill-related characteristics.
When I sit with my children, I share with them how beautiful they are. What I make a point to do is to share why I think they're beautiful. I talk about their kindness, compassion, excellence as a student, obedience, friendliness, service...things that will matter in the long run rather than looks which are fleeting. I believe that my children are physically beautiful, too, but that can't be the emphasis. I want them to use their brains, their hands, their feet to be recognized and to show accomplishment, not their looks which did not require much effort on their part (showering is an effort, according to my son).
We should want our employees to know that the basis for their participation in the success of the company is based on their contributions. We should want them to know that their value is based on real data and impact. We should want them to know that's what makes them beautiful to the company, not their looks. After all, what has Brad Pitt done for your company lately?