Life is definitely not fair: Research shows that how we look affects what we earn, but there are ways to take on this workplace bias.
Those of us who aren’t drop-dead gorgeous sometimes feel that the beautiful people get all the breaks. Research suggests that we are not just being paranoid. Our looks and body types do make a difference — not to mention how we groom and adorn ourselves.
According to a study by University of Florida professor, taller people earn more — about $789 more per year per additional inch of height. Meanwhile, overweight men earn $4,772 less annually than non-obese co-workers; overweight women earn a whopping $8,666 less, according to a George Washington University study. And women who wear makeup are seen as more trustworthy and competent, according to a study from Harvard University.
While paying more for appearances obviously isn’t fair, and likely is unintentional, there’s research indicating good-looking people might develop self-confidence that gives them an edge, says professor Timothy Judge, who did the University of Florida study, and now teaches management at Notre Dame University, So that guy with the boyish charm or the gal with the beautiful face might have developed an attitude over the years that enables them to earn more for the company.
Still, is it fair? After all, self-confidence isn’t confined to the best-looking among us. Maybe you could sell a lot of widgets, too, if they’d only give you a chance.
What the courts say
Unfortunately, your mom was right: Life isn’t always fair. It’s not necessarily illegal to fire someone because of appearance — either for things over which the individual has control (tattoos and piercings, makeup and clothing, for instance) or for traits that are hard or impossible to control, such as height, weight and facial features.
Federal civil rights laws bar discrimination based on race, religion, gender or country of origin, while separate laws bar discrimination against employees because of age and disabilities, but the courts have been reluctant to apply discrimination laws to a rising tide of complaints in a new area. According to a report by the National Law Review:
There has been a significant increase in appearance-based discrimination claims addressing makeup, dress codes, body weight, body art, and grooming in the past several years. … [But] courts have generally been deferential to an employer’s desire to regulate employee appearance in the workplace. In fact, courts rarely interfere with employers’ business judgments to impose gender-differentiated appearance and grooming standards unless the standards bear a clear and unequivocal relationship to a protected class.
The report cites the landmark case filed by a former bartender at a Harrah’s casino, alleging that dress-code requirements for women employees — which included having stockings worn with uniforms, styled hair, nail color, and makeup that included lip color — amounted to discrimination against women. The court ruled that it did not — and upheld Harrah’s right to impose the dress code.
In some cases, being too attractive can work against an employee. Some research suggests that very pretty people may have trouble being taken seriously. In a case in Iowa, a dentist fired his attractive assistant because he and his wife viewed her as a threat to their marriage. That state’s supreme court upheld the action, saying Iowa law doesn’t prohibit firing someone for being too attractive.
(If you want to read about some of the many ways appearance discrimination has been tested in courts, check out this exhaustive report by Miami-based law firm Clark Silverglate & Campbell.)
Don’t be a victim of DNA
With a few exceptions, those doing the hiring probably don’t realize they’re favoring the attractive at the expense of the less so. Like the rest of us, they’re only human. Professor Judge urges employers to be aware of the way that looks might influence their decisions, and to focus on being as objective as possible.
“For us, as individuals, while I can’t look like Brad Pitt, I can make myself look much better than I do when I have my pajamas on Sunday,” says Judge.
In other words, we can all improve our chances of getting ahead by doing better with what we’ve got — looking clean, neat and put together.
And it will help to follow company custom: If most people in your workplace dress business-casual and you routinely show up in cutoffs and flip-flops, you’re probably not helping your career — and could be violating company policy at your own peril.
(Think you can’t afford business attire? See “12 Ways to Get Great Clothes at a Deep Discount.”)
If you’re working with something less easily changed — a receding hairline, advancing age or a tough skin condition, say — take comfort from the fact that while studies suggest appearance may give some an unfair step up, the greatest edge any worker can have is performance. Do what you can to look sharp, and then make sure your resume reflects you’re the one with the most talent, drive and experience to get the job done.
Again, some forms of bias in the workplace are already illegal. If you believe you’ve been discriminated against on the basis of gender, race, shade of skin color, national origin, disability, religion, pregnancy or any other category protected in your state, consult an employment lawyer.
Have you ever faced appearance-based discrimination? What, if anything, did you do about it? Share your experiences in the comments below or on our Facebook page.
Kari Huus contributed to this post.