HR Hero Line

Pretty or plain? What matters when employers evaluate jobseekers?

Tired of struggling over the hurdles to successful hiring, always combing through applications in search of that impeccably capable candidate? What if it were as simple as checking a website with all the unqualified slackers already vetted out? That perfect site may not exist, but if it’s physical beauty you value as much or more than qualifications, a new service is ready to help.

BeautifulPeople.com, an online dating site that makes sure members meet requirements for attractiveness, has just launched a jobs component. Employers seeking “beautiful people” can post jobs, and members of the dating site can peruse openings from employers who don’t want the less than attractive on their team.

BeautifulPeople.com launched the jobs site June 3 with a press release proclaiming “Potential employers seeking to hire good-looking staff only need look no further.” The company claims a database of 750,000 comely members. Employers can approach members who state that they’re actively looking for employment and are willing to be contacted. The service also allows members to submit applications through the site.

If it sounds like a service that might invite the unscrupulous to invent job openings just to contact “beautiful” people, Greg Hodge, managing director of the website, says not to worry. “We have a dedicated team to validate each business which applies to our recruitment service so that every introduction is safe and legitimate,” Hodge said in the press release announcing the service. “This isn’t an invitation for the aesthetically challenged to come and ogle our beautiful members.”

The company’s validation practices and mission already have convinced at least some users. The company’s announcement quotes working mother Olivia Kinnard who plans to use the service to search for a nanny. “The truth is, my toddler, Kit, responds better to good-looking people,” she said. “And I’m sure I’m not the first parent to think they need a slim and fit nanny to be able to keep up with a busy child–it’s just that many wouldn’t dare to come out and say it.”

But is it legal?

A jobs site catering to just the beautiful may raise red flags, but no law specifically protects jobseekers who don’t fit typical notions of what makes a person attractive. That’s not to say employers are immune from legal hazards if they overtly consider beauty when evaluating job candidates.

For example, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) may present a legal risk. Michael P.  Maslanka, managing partner of the Dallas office of Constangy, Brooks & Smith, LLP and editor of Texas Employment Law Letter, points to a case in which a hotel maid lacking an upper denture was found to violate the resort hotel’s appearance policy. The firing led to a claim in which the employee said she was regarded as having a disability and was the victim of an ADA violation.

A person’s weight also can lead to discrimination that may fall under the ADA if an employee or applicant is morbidly obese and considered disabled under the law. Maslanka says people often jump to stereotypical conclusions about what an overweight person can or can’t do.

When an employer draws such a conclusion, “that is when the ADA lands on an employer and lands hard,” Maslanka says. Employers should judge employees and applicants as individuals, “no more, no less.” He says employers can prefer the attractive over the unattractive as long as the distinction isn’t grounded in a disability.

But the ADA isn’t the only antidiscrimination law implicated. Maslanka cites another case in which a hotel manager disliked a desk clerk’s button-down-shirt-and-pants look. A court allowed the case to go to trial finding that a jury could conclude sex discrimination by finding that the manager engaged in sex stereotyping and unlawfully discriminated against the employee for not being feminine enough.

Demand for pretty employees

Despite potential legal dangers, the service may find a niche, according to Daniel S. Hamermesh, an economics professor at the University of Texas and author of Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful. “I expect there will be a fair amount of interest in this,” he says. “In China, for example, nearly 10 percent of job ads list beauty as a requirement for applicants. The more important question is whether this will remain viable. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this lead to legislation to clamp down on the explicit use of beauty in job advertising.”

Hamermesh says a preference for the pretty over the plain is common in a variety of occupations, but it may not be a conscious decision on the part of an interviewer to limit a search to attractive candidates. “A few companies have people who admit they are doing this, but most people will not,” he says. “So my guess is that this is unconscious in most cases.”

Whether conscious or unconscious, the preference for pretty people is hard to overcome, Hamermesh says. “After all, if your customers want beautiful people to buy from, or your employees want good-looking fellow workers, if you ignore those preferences you are hurting your bottom line. And the evidence is that customers are the driving force behind looks discrimination. So until people’s attitudes change generally, I don’t see why employers, absent any external pressure, will or even should wish to overcome these tendencies.”