It's clear that what you look like can affect your hiring process, but your attractiveness might not affect your job search in the ways you might think.
Science of Work

Here’s how attractiveness can hurt you at work

It’s clear that what you look like can affect your hiring process, but not always in the ways you might think.

A recent study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that the perception that “attractive” people have a sense of entitlement results in the assumption that they wouldn’t be as comfortable working in “relatively less desirable jobs.” So when filling these positions, those in charge of hiring tend to keep this in mind, resulting in discrimination against attractive people.

“Our results suggest that different discriminatory processes operate when decision makers select among candidates for relatively less desirable jobs and that attractive people might be systematically discriminated against in a segment of the workforce,” the study elaborates.

This study goes against the grain of other findings showing that attractiveness gives you a leg up generally, including in hiring, performance assessments, and when promotion time rolls around.

What does it take to be deemed ‘attractive’?

“The focus of the paper is on facial physical attractiveness, and in the studies this was manipulated by using pretested photos that were rated as relatively more or less physically attractive,” lead author Margaret Lee told Ladders. “What we find is that people make assumptions about what a person might expect or want based on a person’s physical attractiveness.”

What makes a job relatively more or less ‘desirable’?

“We argue that in the set of all possible jobs that exist in the world, some are perceived to be more desirable than others (think the lists that are often compiled about the top 10 best and worst jobs). The factors that contribute to the assessment of a job being more or less desirable may include things like the pay level, the amount of social status associated with a job, the benefits that come with a job, or the tasks that are actually involved in the job. In our studies, we used more general descriptions of jobs as being boring/interesting, unpopular/popular, and low/high satisfaction,” Lee told Ladders.

Here’s why what you look like can affect your job prospects

More than 750 people took part in in four experiments in the study.

The first experiment found that people think good-looking people feel more entitled to things working out in their favor than those who aren’t as good looking, and thus people think that attractive people won’t be as happy in “relatively less desirable jobs.”

(While it’s unclear what kinds of jobs might be deemed more or less desirable in a corporate context, the fourth experiment involving HR managers listed some “relatively less desirable” ones, including warehouse laborer, customer service representative, and housekeeper. It also listed “relatively more desirable” positions, including IT intern, entry-level manager, and project director.)

The second study found that attractive applicants had less chance of scoring “relatively less desirable jobs” than those in the other aesthetic category during a “hiring simulation,” seeming because it was assumed attractive people would be less happy with those jobs.

In the third study, the basic premise of the research manifested itself again — participants had to pick a partner who they’d work with, and were less likely to pick the person who was easy on the eyes when it was a relatively less desirable job than when it was a desirable one.

When getting into someone’s head backfires in hiring

Lee told Ladders that since people’s looks appear to influence what people think applicants desire or “expect,” it might be wise for those with hiring power keep this in mind. Keeping someone out of a potentially “undesirable” job because they’re too attractive to want it is just as unjustified as elevating a candidate because of good looks.