On top of a globalized economy featuring importing of talent and exporting of talent, there appears to be yet another layer of competition for the average American worker - who’s prettier. There’s evidence that the perceived age discrimination reported by mature workers seeking employment might not be so much about age as about the perceived loss of attractiveness associated with aging. It seems that pretty is preferred in business.
In his 2008 book, Looks, Dr. Gordon Patzer, professor at Roosevelt University in Chicago, reports that - all other things being equal - the good looking candidate will get the job. There is, he says, a perception that because someone is good looking they are also smarter and more competent. Conversely, the less attractive are thought to be less intelligent and less competent. The attribute of good looks he calls physical attractiveness or PA.
The problem for job searchers over 50 is that PA changes over 50. Skin begins to sag, girth begins to expand and posture can be affected (the stoop associated with aging) – not pretty. And further, the tendency to assign positive attributes to PA is coupled with some negative mythology about what age means.
Negative mythology regarding age includes an assumption of diminished capacity, including slower thinking processes, impaired judgment and a certain, well, squareness. None of this is necessarily true, but it is very difficult to dislodge myth once myth is established. In a competitive business environment, with leaner staffs and individuals expected to take on additional responsibilities, company owners are looking for sharp, responsive employees, culturally savvy and comfortable working with a diverse workgroup. According to Patzer, attractiveness reputedly has an effect on the bottom line – the profitability – of business. Attractive people – armed with the confidence and acceptance bestowed on the very attractive – are more interactive with both co-workers and clients. This sociability is held to be a good thing especially for those businesses that are relationship based and so subject to the rules of attractiveness. The halo phenomenon associated with attractiveness is compounded because all kinds of attributes, such as honesty and knowledge are bestowed on more attractive people. There is absolutely no evidence that attractive people are any more honest or credible than unattractive people, but once again it is very difficult to unseat cultural moray. How did this attractiveness thing get started anyway?
Evolutionary psychologists attribute the habit of attraction to attractiveness because of another myth – that attractiveness means health. And early on in our human evolution health meant survival. And so, we picked our mates according to their perceived ability to produce healthy offspring. It is less a matter of survival now and if asked, most people would say that they look for other qualities such as intelligence and morals. But when was the last time you saw a really attractive man with an unattractive woman? This ancient thinking may also be effecting a preference for young over old in choosing employees.
Patzer also reports on a downside to attractiveness. Patzer reports on studies that the bar for performance is higher for attractive people is higher and when that bar is not met, corrective action is taken sooner and is more serious than for those employees judged not so attractive. Also, disciplinary actions in general are more severe for attractive people, especially attractive women. When attractive employees fail to deliver, the reason why is most often attributed to a lack of trying rather than other circumstances.