If you have ginger hair or a regional accent, society believes it is perfectly acceptable to tease you about it. And with increased focus on the importance of physical attractiveness, many in HR believe workplaces are becoming 'lookist'.
These are the findings from our 'ugliness' survey, carried out last month among nearly 4,000 readers of Personnel Today. Inspired by Channel 4's Ugly Betty - about the trials of an ugly duckling among the swans of a glamorous New York fashion magazine - we sought to discover how 'difference' is viewed and treated in the workplace and society at large.
We asked: To what extent do you agree or disagree that society believes it is acceptable to tease people about certain hair, facial or bodily characteristics? Ginger hair is by far and away the feature that the majority (81%) believe is permissible to joke about. While only 20% say they personally think it's acceptable to mock their red-haired colleagues, 79% of those survey respondents who have ginger hair have been teased because of it.
Blondes also get more stick than most. Three-quarters of respondents think society believes it is OK to poke fun at blondes, but only half of the fair-haired people surveyed have personally been teased about it.
Baldness is another easy target, with 84% having the mickey taken out of them, and 72% believing that it is acceptable to do so in the eyes of society.
The way you speak is also considered an easy target. Three-quarters believe society thinks it is OK to rib you for your regional accent, though only one in five says that they would personally banter about this. A high percentage (87%) say their accent has been the butt of the joke, as do 91% of those with a speech impediment. This is surprising, given that 97% of respondents say that, personally, they would never tease someone with a speech impediment. Acne and dandruff are two other no-go areas.
Generally, if the physical characteristic is a result of a medical condition, then it is not safe to tease about it. But if it is something you have chosen yourself (for example, an unconventional outfit), then society deems you fair game, according to our figures.
Interestingly, more people have been laughed at for being underweight (84%) than overweight (63%) short people receive more jibes than their tall counterparts (74% versus 45%) and women with large breasts (73%) receive more comments than those with small breasts (59%).
Men and women have very different attitudes towards what is acceptable. Seventy per cent of men admit they have teased people about the way they look, compared with just 52% of women. Men, on average, are twice as likely to tease someone about an individual characteristic than a woman is. For example, one-third of the men who took part in our survey personally think it is acceptable to joke about the clothes someone is wearing, compared with just 16% of women and 18% of men would tease someone for being fat, compared with just 5% of women.
Maria Yapp, chief executive of Xancam, a firm of business psychologists, says men emerge as less sensitive to other people's opinions, and what people say generally won't affect their opinion of themselves.
Yapp adds: "Women tend to be 'field dependent' - they rely more on other people's views of them. Women tend to be less likely to tease because they are more socially sensitive and think: 'how would I feel if that happened to me?'"
Political correctness gone mad
So when is it acceptable to tease? Generally, it is permissible when both parties know each other, take it in the spirit it was intended, and everyone is laughing - but not when it makes anyone uncomfortable or hurt, or when comments are made to someone you don't know.
"Context and audience are all-important. You should be able to know what the reaction is likely to be before you tease - otherwise don't do it," says one respondent.
However, many of you agree that there is a fine line between good-natured teasing and spiteful bullying. But while being mindful of political correctness, HR departments are generally loath to insert 'no-teasing' clauses into employees' terms and conditions. Not least because it would be impossible to police - and anyway, who wants to work in a sterile, po-faced environment?
Here's a selection of your views:
"An element of fair play, common sense and good sense of humour must prevail. Or are we living in a PC society too afraid to say anything?"
"If it looks like an elephant, it probably is an elephant, so why can't that be said?"
"Teasing people for the way they look is a form of discrimination. What's the difference between teasing someone for having ginger hair and teasing someone for the colour of their skin?"
"I believe we will see discrimination legislation in relation to body shape in the next five to 10 years."
"Employers have a responsibility to promote a culture that excludes this type of behaviour, and managers have a responsibility to enforce it."
"Our society is on the verge of wiping out any humour that still exists."
A culture of 'lookism'
There is a thread running through many of your responses, and that is the belief that good-looking people get ahead more quickly, easily and gainfully than those who are 'different'. In other words, a culture of 'lookism' has emerged in the workplace. Some of you blame the media, particularly the rise of celebrity magazines that prize beauty and conformity, and ridicule any deviation from the 'ideal'.
What HR has to deal with is a bunch of line managers who recruit on this basis - either consciously or sub-consciously - as your verbatim comments reveal:
"People are judged by what they look like, and this may affect whether a person is hired. Attractive people generally make a better impression."
"Being ugly is just as bad as being a woman who is unable to break through the glass ceiling. You will find it 10 times as hard to succeed in a professional role and be treated like you are capable and deserve that status."
"I've experienced managers who openly said they wanted a looker on reception to make the punters feel happy."
"The worst interview notes I've seen included the phrases: 'she was so ugly, she made my bloodhound look gorgeous' 'back of the queue in the looks department' and 'desperately in need of plastic surgery'."
"HR people have a constant fight on our hands to make recruiting managers understand that the most valuable employee may not be the one who 'looks right'."
Finally, here is a snapshot of the kind of teasing that you have to put up with:
"I've been told I acted 'like a blonde' by my male, sweaty, overweight boss."
"I had a boss who called me a 'blonde bimbo'. It is frustrating when people who have influence over my career make ignorant comments about my intelligence or temperament based on my hair colour."
"I was treated as though I had more integrity when I had my hair short and light brown."
"People don't expect an Irish person to be more educated than they are, have a wider English vocabulary, or be interested in more cultural pursuits (ie beyond drinking Guinness and fighting)."
"Coming from Liverpool, my strong accent is always picked up on first - my opinions second."
"I am a Londoner living in the North. Some things I say can sound cockney, and colleagues often sing Knees Up Mother Brown to me."
"I was once told, in a half-joking way, that a manager would think twice about me going to work for her because she 'didn't think she could stand my accent'."
"As a thin ginger person with a regional accent, I have been likened to a lollipop."
"Why is ginger always so derogatory? Being short, fat and ginger with glasses, I have often been the butt of soft jokes or innuendo."
"If you are ginger, no-one will ever have sympathy as it's too deeply ingrained that it's acceptable to tease. Catherine Tate has a whole sketch about it."
"I have been called blobby by my (female) boss when out in a public place."
"A colleague called me a big fat green bogey the other day because the clothes I was wearing were predominantly green and I am a bit overweight."
"A manager exiting an interview room - after an overweight candidate had left the building - shouted to a group of existing employees: 'SUUUMMMOOO'."
"I work for a fashion retailer, so we don't really do ugly. I've heard people describe a manager who is a size 14 as 'the fat one'."
"I am a size 0 with no dieting or exercise. It amazes me that people think it appropriate to comment on how skinny I am or how I need to eat more food."
"I have an image that is not mainstream (gothic/alternative), and I frequently receive abusive comments. People feel uncomfortable at the sight of things that affront their natural sense of aesthetics."
"I am a gay lad and so get teased about wearing tighter shirts than most of the other men in the office."
"I've had comments about my large breasts, mainly from managers (who should know better). I wouldn't dream of making a comment about the size of a man's testicles."
"Lewd comments about the size of my breasts are insulting and show a complete lack of respect for another human being."
"If someone teases me about having large knockers I just laugh it off and don't take offence."
"I get teased about my height, with comments such as: 'What's the weather like up there?'"
"I heard people calling a short woman a dwarf, and singing 'Hi-ho, hi-ho' when she walks past."
"I'm a 5ft7 bloke. I get told: 'No good applying for the top jobs they're reserved for tall people with gravitas'."
The employment lawyer's perspective
"There is currently no law that prevents discrimination on the grounds of hair colour or size of nose, but some aspects of teasing could be covered by current legislation. For example, teasing about a person's age could amount to harassment under the age regulations, and teasing a blonde woman for being dense - or commenting on breast size - could be sexual harassment.
Where teasing becomes bullying, employers could face claims of constructive dismissal if they didn't stop it or prevent the employee from being harassed.
Green v DB Group Services (UK) Ltd is an example of a case that went beyond teasing in the office. The employee had a nervous breakdown because of bullying from her workmates - and she received £800,000 compensation.
The challenge for HR is in maintaining a non-sterile working atmosphere, while preserving people's sense of dignity. Diversity policies should stipulate that it is unacceptable to make unwanted comments about people's features. The real difficulty is in defining what is and isn't unwanted - and that's a real minefield. What's consensual on one day may not be acceptable on another."
Alan Chalmers, employment partner, DLA Piper
The business psychologist's perspective
"Everyone creates their own reality. When you squeeze an orange, what comes out is what's inside - ie, orange juice. If someone makes a malicious taunt, it shows that they don't feel great inside.
How you react reflects what you feel you're worth. So if you react badly, it shows you don't feel great, either. Sometimes recipients of teasing don't take it well because they're coming at it from a victim mentality, and because inside they don't feel good about themselves.
Next time you react badly, stop and ask yourself what that is saying about what's inside you.
You can't change what other people do - you have no control over that - but you can fix your own reaction. And that starts with your own self worth.
By creating a strong internal reference point, you won't take to heart what people say. You'll be less dependent on how you look to others, and more stress-resistant as a result."
Maria Yapp, chief executive, Xancam (business psychologists)