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The "Attractiveness Bonus" in the Workplace

Studies show pretty people make more money--so should ugly people be designated disabled members of a disadvantaged minority meriting compensation as a protected class?

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Like it or not, companies raise revenues by hiring the hot.  

Whether these revenues outbalance the higher cost of hiring attractive employees is a question for the accounting department.  

"Better-looking people will choose occupations where their looks pay off, and worse-looking people will shy away from those occupations," Hamermesh notes. One of his own studies found correlations between lawyers' legal specialties and their attractiveness levels. The best-looking lawyers were highly visible courtroom-drama-type litigators. The least attractive lawyers were regulation and administrative attorneys who worked quietly behind the scenes. 

Even in fields where looks shouldn't matter, they do. In hiring and payment, employers consistently favor attractive people over their worse-looking peers. Hamermesh wonders why. He quotes jewelry designer (and Mick's daughter) Jade Jagger saying in an interview: "God, what gorgeous staff I have. I just can't understand people who have ugly people working for them." 

Do bosses simply want to surround themselves with eye candy? Are beautiful workers considered better workers because their confidence and high self-esteem (thanks to being beautiful) make them cheerier and sweeter-tempered than their hostile, depressed ugly counterparts? Are the beauteous effective team leaders, managers and executives whom clients and coworkers will eagerly help, trust and obey? Do the students of beauteous teachers pay closer attention, thus learn more? 

In the workplace, what does beauty buy? Better pay. Better chances of being hired and promoted. Beauty also buys "access to more opportunities to build skills, meet customers, impress the boss favorably, and so on, than would be given to a worse-looking coworker. The beautiful worker would have the chance to build her skills, perhaps with only small investments of her time. Skills are created through beauty in this case, but the enhanced skills are manna from heaven, in the sense that the worker has done nothing to create her additional earning power." 

Nothing, that is, except sparkle. 

"Skills are thrust upon her by virtue of her good looks," Hamermesh writes. "In this case the effect of looks on earnings would rise ... and it is a real effect." 

With jobs so scarce, is this fair? 

Hamermesh ponders "policies that might be used to protect the ugly." Section 12102 of the Americans with Disabilities Act defines disability as "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities." Isn't earning a living a major life activity?  

Affirmative action is another option. Warning that this would be tricky, Hamermesh ponders "requiring an employer to offer plans that would indicate how homely people would be hired into entry- and upper-level positions, advance up job ladders, etc." 

Looks-based anti-discrimination laws are already active in San Francisco and Santa Cruz, California; Urbana, Illinois; Madison, Wisconsin; Howard County, Maryland, and elsewhere. Section 512, Title 4 of Washington, DC's Municipal Code outlaws discrimination "on the basis of outward appearance for purposes of recruitment, hiring, or promotion." Such laws could expand. 

Acne-scarred faces under attack! Whatta we do? File suit, fight back.  

"I have shown," Hamermesh concludes, "that bad looks can generate an earnings disadvantage of perhaps $140,000 over a lifetime." (That could buy you two houses right now in central Florida.) "Extending protection to the bad-looking ... may be worth consideration. Bad-looking people should command the sympathy of others. ... Yet the ugly are only one of many groups of individuals who are deserving of protection. The scarcity of political energy for offering protection" -- along with the fees of those good-looking litigators hired to try your case -- "should be considered seriously before we add the bad-looking to the list." 

 
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