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How to Avoid Beauty Bias When Hiring

A young woman in a business suit posing for a photo.

​Job seekers with movie-star good looks appear to have the world at their feet, except for when they apply for menial work, according to recent research.

Results published in the American Psychological Association's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that managers are hesitant to hire conventionally beautiful people for less desirable jobs such as warehouse worker, housekeeper and customer service representative. Some hiring managers assume attractive people would be dissatisfied with low-paying and not-so glamorous jobs, the study found. The research report was authored by professors at the London Business School, Singapore Management University and international graduate business school INSEAD.

It concludes that while the physically attractive generally are positively stereotyped and often are treated more favorably, they could be discriminated against when applying for jobs perceived to be beneath them, due to notions that attractive people are more likely to be dissatisfied working in less desirable jobs.

"This [study] reinforces the fact that people are human and are sometimes incapable of recognizing and addressing their biases," said Carisa Miklusak, CEO, president and co-founder of Tilr, a recruitment technology company in Cincinnati. "These types of pre-judgments mean the right people aren't placed into the right roles, which can have reverberating effects on a company's overall talent management strategy. It can also be detrimental to the employee because it boxes them out of a job they want and are qualified for."

To prevent this, human resources experts say, hiring managers and recruiters must be trained to detect conscious and unconscious bias during the interview process.

"Recruiters who present only 'good-looking' candidates, or make judgments based on whether or not someone is good-looking, shouldn't be in business," stated Linda Ferrante, vice president of operations at RFT Search Group, an executive recruiting firm in the Detroit metropolitan area. "If they can't see past the physical beauty of the candidate, how can a company be certain the recruiter is working to solve their problems and recruit the best candidates?"

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Blinded by Beauty Bias

Physical appearance—with the exception of color—is not considered a protected class by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; however, experts on talent selection say hiring a candidate based on appearance could be an example of workplace discrimination.

Using appearance as a screening mechanism is a form of hiring bias, explained Patrick McKay, professor of human resource management at the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. "Selection decisions should be based upon job-relevant knowledge, abilities and other characteristics—such as temperament—but not on appearance."

Patrick Colvin, SHRM-CP, strategic HR business partner at Gannett in New York, noted that beauty bias is a hidden form of discrimination that's common in the workplace and has become more profound in recent years. "While it is not illegal per se to make hiring decisions based on appearance, this is dangerous ground."

Tips to Avoid Subconscious Bias

A structured screening process that evaluates candidates before in-person interviews helps recruiters and hiring managers avoid subconscious bias in hiring, said Carol Wood, people operations director at Houston-based technology company Homebase. This can be accomplished by first eliminating candidates who do not meet minimum requirements on paper and then screening by phone—not by video chat or Skype—to validate their resume qualifications.

"This allows recruiters to compare objective criteria and select the top candidates to interview without subconscious biases coming into play," Wood said.

Stan Kimer, president of Total Engagement Consulting in Raleigh, N.C., suggested that during the initial screening process, recruiters may want to remove names and photos, which may bias HR or hiring managers against qualified candidates. He also advised including a panel of people representing different demographics on a recruiting team to mitigate individual unconscious biases.

Steve Pritchard, HR manager at Cuuver, an insurance comparison technology company based in the United Kingdom, recommended recruiters tap into artificial intelligence tools to help them with the selection process. "This is one of the best ways of removing bias from the hiring process because the computers will look for the candidates with the key skills necessary to do the job, ensuring you will be hiring people for the right reasons," he added.

"Technology can vet and select candidates based on skills and previous performance," Miklusak explained.

Catherine Skrzypinski is a freelance writer based in Vancouver.

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