Lucy Kellaway: Let’s face it, looks do count when it comes to hiring

Lucy Kellaway: Let’s face it, looks do count when it comes to hiring

We are hopelessly faceist. Nobody calls anyone ugly anymore, they just don’t hire them

Lucy Kellaway

 

Recruiters and managers are so faceist that the good-looking have been found to earn some 10 per cent more than the bad-looking. File photograph: Stockphoto/Getty

Recruiters and managers are so faceist that the good-looking have been found to earn some 10 per cent more than the bad-looking. File photograph: Stockphoto/Getty

 

Not long ago I found myself addressing a room full of newish hires at one of the big four accountancy firms. As I surveyed the crowd, I noticed something odd.

Among the 80 faces turned towards me, there was not a single ugly one. No one with badly pockmarked skin. No one with displeasingly asymmetric features. Every single face was tolerably easy on the eye.

This wasn’t Vogue or Abercrombie & Fitch. These people had been hired to audit company accounts, a task which requires an unusual enthusiasm for GAAP – not high cheekbones.

Yet this roomful of accountants all achieved a minimum standard of looks that a large slice of the general population fails to match.

This firm is not at all unusual. If I think of the friends of my children who have landed jobs in accountancy, banking, consulting and the law, all are of far above average appearance. Even in radio, long supposed to be the natural home of the ugly, there is not a plain person in sight.

I am in the process of making a radio documentary and all the producers are gorgeous,and even the sound technicians – who commune with buttons all day – are perfectly agreeable to look at.

Not only have we banished the ugly from most competitive jobs, polite society has banished the word too. In time, the U-word will be deemed as obnoxious as the N-word, but for now I’m using it to make a point. No one calls anyone ugly. They just decline to hire them.

We aren’t racist or sexist any more, but are still hopelessly faceist. I’ve just tried an online test – in which you have to judge people to be honest, dominant and competent based on subtle differences in their features – and it turns out I’m just as faceist as the next person. Which is to say, very.

Recruiters and managers are so faceist that the good-looking have been found to earn some 10 per cent more than the bad-looking; while the chief executives with commanding faces have been shown to run companies that make the fattest profits.

Other studies establish that being ugly can sometimes be an advantage – if you are trying to rob a bank it is good if you look a bit scary. It can also help you get hired over someone handsome – but only when the person doing the hiring sees you as competition. Neither result is especially cheering.

Getting worse

While the studies don’t prove faceism is getting worse, my eyes tell me it is. This may be partly because my eyes are 56 years old, and to them anyone in their 20s seems beautiful.

Yet I’ve just been looking at ancient photographs of my class of trainees at JPMorgan in 1982 and even though we look ridiculously young, we don’t look uniformly lovely. There were a few ravishing beauties, but most of us were of unremarkable appearance and a few were distinctly plain.

Another possible reason accountants are getting better-looking is that the whole world is becoming prettier as it gets richer and more obsessed with grooming.

Yet if you go on the Tube in London in the morning and look at commuters, you quickly see this isn’t true. There are plenty of ugly people – but where do they work? Not in the City. Not at the Big Four firms.

In a way it is odd that we should be becoming more faceist in an internet age in which we send emails rather than meet people. Yet in other ways the internet is making things worse.

Just now I was sent details of a person I’m interviewing for something and I did what I always do – looked him up on Google Images and observed his wide apart eyes and strongish jaw. My prejudices were forming – and I hadn’t even clapped eyes on him.

To combat this sort of thing, Unilever and Microsoft are engaging in an experiment in Mexico where they interview people behind a screen for the first three minutes, so that vital first impressions are face-free. I bet in time this sort of thing will catch on; I daresay by then faceism will be illegal.

In the meantime, the number of ugly workers a company employs says a lot about the sort of place it is. If it hires only the attractive, it is not only being horrid, it is missing out on a group of potential stars – meaning underperformance is bound to follow.

My colleagues

In thinking about this column I have been looking closely at my own colleagues and I trust they will not mind if I point out that there is little sign of faceism at play in the Financial Times.

If you do an audit of columnists’ byline pictures – which range from the fairly gorgeous to the not-gorgeous at all – I think you will agree that the resulting bell curve matches the national distribution.

I can think of plenty of other newspapers where the byline pictures are on average prettier, but then the standard of comment is rather lower. The two facts are surely not unrelated. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015

 

Previously published in The Irish Times.

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