Dangers of judging staff at face value

When US network CBS recently poached Lara Logan from GMTV, the roving
reporter stressed that she landed the job because of her journalistic ability.
Stunning good looks and a fantastic body had little to do with it, said the
South African beauty.

Even if this is true, it is difficult to deny that looks matter in the jobs
market. It has long been known that, after taking things such as background and
qualifications into account, tall men earn more than short men. Interview
panels can be swayed by an attractive personality combined with a well-tailored
outfit. And accents count too – with Brummies and Scousers apparently at a
disadvantage when it comes to recruitment.

If this were not disconcerting enough for those of us who champion diversity
and equal opportunities, such ‘lookism’ seems to be becoming more widespread in
our increasingly ‘high touch’ service-based and client-oriented economy. The
fast growing ‘cappuccino economy’ of bars, clubs and restaurants now employs
1.1 million in the UK, with a further 400,000 in sport and recreation.

In such a jobs market, the way people look, dress, behave and present
themselves joins the long-list of ‘soft skills’ employers require. Some
economists have coined the phrase ‘aesthetic labour’ to describe workers hired
primarily for their image – and advocate ‘style training’ to ensure jobseekers
can match the expectations of employers and customers.

However, while there is nothing wrong with advising people on how to smarten
up and ‘look the part’ for a job – uniforms, after all, have been common for
many groups of workers for generations – there is obviously a potentially
pernicious side to lookism.

Most right-minded people would doubtless agree that individuals should not
be denied employment on grounds of gender or race, or disability assuming that
they are capable of performing a given job. Consequently, there is legal
protection against such discrimination. Having signed up to the EU general
anti-discrimination directive, the UK will in due course also take steps to
prevent job discrimination on grounds of age, religious affiliation and sexual
orientation. But the EU directive does not cover lookism.

This relative silence probably stems partly from the obvious difficulty that
would be associated with framing workable employment legislation to counter
lookism, and from the fact that society adopts fairly narrow stereotypes when
it comes to issues of appearance which employers are under pressure to reflect.

Even so, in the era of aesthetic labour, lookism will almost certainly
become a big issue for HR and only by valuing people as individuals will
employers be able to get under the skin of the problem.

By John Philpott, Chief economist, CIPD














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