It's Okay to Discriminate Against Ugly People


Ian responds to a post where I say that it’s unfair — but not illegal — to discriminate against ugly people.

Life is unfair, and every cultural anthropologist will tell you that beauty (in some form) is valued around the world. It gives people an edge. Unfortunately, it totally sucks for ugly people, fat people, short people, people with bad teeth, bad hair, or bad skin. [This is why I use acne medication and wear contact lenses. I want every advantage I can get. I can’t do anything about my height, though.]

Ian responds to my post.

Okay. Okay. Don’t hate me. This is just a devil’s advocate comment, I just want to see what people say. But the general feeling in the comments so far are that discriminating based on looks is bad — @Joe even calls it “sloppy” HR. However.

Let’s leave aside for a minute the obvious advantages of presenting a professional image and the professional benefits of looking like you have your s*%t together, because I think we can all agree on those. However.

In any situation that involves face-to-face interpersonal interaction, has it not also been shown that attractive people tend to have an advantage? That people respond better to people they find attractive? Meaning that if two candidates have comparable qualifications, it makes more sense to hire the better-looking one because they’ve got a little extra advantage when it comes to dealing with coworkers and (especially) clients?

Hiring an incompetent candidate for their looks *alone* is, of course, stupid, but not necessarily because it breaks some moral code. It’s just stupid because the person is likely not going to do a great job. We use the word “discrimination” like it’s a four-letter word, but that’s basically an HR person’s job — to discriminate (i.e., evaluate and select) between candidates based on who is going to do a better job. And if a person’s looks will make them more effective in a position than other candidates, why not discriminate on that basis?

Ian, we do use the word ‘discriminate’ like it is a four-letter word because, in 99% of the cases we see, it is a four-letter word; however, you’re right to say that HR helps organizations choose candidates based on specific and high-minded criteria. We make distinctions between candidates and we help leaders choose candidates and employees.

To your broader question — if you have two equally qualified candidates, why not err in favor of the more attractive candidate if it gives your business a competitive advantage? I wonder if that’s true. You can hire a handsome man to work in your lab or a pretty woman to work in your accounting department. Would that give your company an advantage in the market if no one sees them except other employees? Or would you just use beauty as a tool to create customer and vendor-facing teams like sales and marketing?

What do you guys think? If HR recognizes or perceives the difference in candidates and makes hiring recommendations based on a whole slew of reasons, should beauty be one of those reasons?

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