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How should managers avoid the trap of beauty standards in hiring and performance evaluation?

How should managers avoid the trap of beauty standards in hiring and performance evaluation?

Does being better looking mean being better skilled? Dr Yanju Liu from Hong Kong Baptist University School of Business shares how the “beauty bias” affects the workplace and ways organisations can mitigate it.

Despite the age-old saying “do not judge a book by its cover,” we’re all guilty of doing just that. And, unfortunately, this goes beyond just books. According to Deloitte’s State of Inclusion report, which surveyed 3,000 individuals in the United States, 61% of respondents experience bias frequently whereas 63% witness bias frequently, proving that quick judgments based on preconceived notions are still common in the workplace.

While there are a myriad of biases at play in the workplace, one common trap that managers often fall into is the “beauty bias”. Also commonly known as the “beauty premium”, this phenomenon of favouring better-looking individuals has been extensively researched and talked about, one example being research done by the Journal of Economic Psychology, which found that women are perceived as more trustworthy when wearing makeup and are more likely to receive higher income.

But does being better looking really equate to being better skilled?

What the research says: Exploring the beauty bias

The effects of this pro-attractiveness bias can be witnessed in having an impact as early as in classrooms. Studies have found that students who are more attractive tend to secure higher grades as they are perceived to be more competent and intelligent.

Moving into early career hiring and placements, this bias rears its head in many forms. A recent study done at Hong Kong Baptist University examined the impact of beauty on the academic career success of tenure-track accounting professors at top American business schools, and the results were more or less consistent with the norm:  

  • There was a strong positive impact of perceived attractiveness on the school ranking of a PhD candidate’s first job placement. Candidates seen as more attractive tend to be placed at higher-ranked schools upon graduation from their PhD programme. At the same time, more attractive candidates obtain tenure at their first school placement in a shorter time period.
  • Interestingly, the time to full professorship was not found to be affected by beauty standards. These findings are consistent with the idea that after a sufficient amount of time has passed for professors to demonstrate their ability, physical attractiveness no longer induces a behavioral bias.

From this research, the main takeaway is that the beauty premium is evident when forming first impressions of an individual. The luxury of it depreciates as time passes and people start to realise the true abilities of the individual.

Outside of academia, this “beauty premium” continues to affect the business world in many forms – employers often choose to not hire less attractive candidates, while at the same time they more often than not choose to fire less attractive employees as well.

It doesn’t just stop at hiring, research conducted by a research economist at the Luxembourg Socio-Economic Institute, showed that despite performing the same job, attractive people were likely to earn 10-15% higher incomes than those considered to be more homely.

Lose the perks: Avoiding the beauty trap

Two-thirds (68%) of respondents in the Deloitte report said that witnessing and/or experiencing bias, stereotypes or judgements has had a negative impact on their productivity at work, which suggested that biased and unfair treatment can directly have an impact on not just individual performance but overall company output as well.

Given the potential negative impact of biases, organisations need to proactively act towards mitigating them before they encroach all workplace processes. Here are some ways to do so:

1. Introducing and updating neutral hiring policies

In 2019, the National Assembly of Korea passed legislative amendments to the Fair Recruitment Procedure Act (“FRPA”) – dubbed the “blind hiring” bill. This policy update most importantly was set in place to prohibit employers from asking jobseekers to provide any information unrelated to the position and the applicant’s merit. Policies like this can help hiring managers avoid decisions based on biases and focus more on a candidate’s skills and abilities. 

2. Using informed technology to enhance hiring processes

With new technological developmentsalmost every week, there’s so much that can be leveraged to make hiring more objective and merit-based. Performance management and hiring tools are slowly starting to incorporate bias identification technology. Talent recruitment companies have started to create software that is backed by data and behavioural science. Organisations like The Co-operative Bank, have implemented this and reduced bias in hiring by almost 90%.

AI is an extremely powerful tool that can be used to measure performance and skill level. A recent article from Harvard Business Review details how AI can be used to detect and expose the degree of bias from ratings of potential and performance given by humans. AI, if programmed correctly, could become an objective way to measure what humans can’t always see. Companies from many industries are starting to rely more on AI in their processes.

Can beauty bias be completely eliminated?

Unfortunately, completely eliminating unconscious bias is not a realistic expectation as it is an innate human quality, but managing it and taking steps to curb it can significantly improve hiring and promotion processes. This can help ensure that the right candidates are hired for the right role and fair promotion and compensation is given.

Research does show that the role played by beauty in job evaluation and promotion diminishes when an individual’s ability and competency become apparent over time. But is important that individuals get fair opportunities starting right in their earlier career and that they don’t have to wait years to prove their worth.


About the author:

Dr. Yanju Liu is an Assistant Professor of the Department of Accountancy, Economics and Finance at Hong Kong Baptist University. Prior to joining HKBU in 2021, she spent eight years at Singapore Management University as a faculty member, where she taught Financial Accounting at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. She obtained her Ph.D. in Accounting and M.A. in Economics from the University of Toronto. She received her B.A. in Economics and Finance (with First Class Honors) from the University of Hong Kong.


Image / Provided (Author: Dr. Yanju Liu from Hong Kong Baptist University School of Business)

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