Q: Can you briefly explain your research? Why do you think the press has been so excited about it?
A: My research looks at the effect of physical appearance on the selection of male and female candidates. The media picked up on the research about men, I think, because there was an effect of male looks, but not female looks. It turns out that when attractive men are considered for cooperative workplaces, they are preferred. When they are considered for competitive workplaces, they are more avoided because they are seen as future threats to decision-makers.
The rest of my research is more in line with what has been done in past. Basically a woman’s attractiveness is not associated with intelligence, smartness or competence, while a male’s attractiveness is. So regardless of the kind of workplace — whether one based in competition or cooperation — the looks of female candidates did not have any effect on hiring decisions. In a man’s case, it did.
Why the interest in attractiveness? Have you witnessed this appearance-based kind of discrimination in your career?
Looks are a hot topic — people care about them and pay attention to them. So I was particularly interested in examining their impact on selection processes and outcomes. I also learned from my friends in industry that, even though they try not to, many smart people are affected by stereotypes like gender, race and good looks. So I was interested in examining the effect of stereotypes on selection outcomes in organizations.
I’m from South Korea, where many large global companies ask the candidates to attach their photos to their resumes. I worked in three companies and for all of my applications I put my photo on the resume without knowing how it was being used. It shows that looks matter.
I also have a few male friends working in finance in the banking industry in London, England. They told me that many of their colleagues look like handsome alpha males and they wonder why so many good-looking guys work in this industry. They didn’t imply that there was discrimination… but looking around, there are more males than females and more good-looking George Clooney types who are alpha, aggressive and tall.
Good looks matter in getting into finance, but after that some good-looking guys are regarded as a threat to their bosses. I find this interesting. It motivated the shape of my research questions, because it really depends on the type of relationship you have with somebody: whether it’s one of competition or cooperation.
That’s interesting. Can you explain more about what it means to work in competition versus cooperation?
Take the example of our relationship. Let’s assume I meet you in a work setting. You work for media and I work in academia. Since you want to use my story, you can expect that our working relationship will be cooperative rather than competitive. But let’s assume that you work in a media company that is very competitive. Only a few people get promoted and I enter the same department as you. In this different context we will expect to compete with each other. That’s what my theory is based on — whether recruiters expect to compete or cooperate with candidates.
In academia many things are cooperative — performance is measured by publishing papers and I can cooperate with many authors. When my school is hiring and I see a smart person applying for my department, I am happy to have him or her there because most likely he or she will be my collaborator.
I imagine that people who discriminate in this way must be feeling pretty insecure. Do people who discriminate against good-looking male candidates have any particular characteristics?
I think my findings might not hold in a situation where there is a huge gap between the decision-maker and candidate. In my experiments, the decision-makers were at the same level as the position future candidates were applying for. If a decision-maker is from the senior management team and they are evaluating candidates applying for entry-level positions, then it might be difficult for them to imagine that they would compete with this entry-level person. My findings might not apply in that situation, though I don’t have data to support it. All to say that, even if a company is very competitive, the CEO might not be threatened by other people, good-looking or not.
HR managers often do recruiting work, so they might be less susceptible to stereotypes. They are trained to focus on the candidate’s objective qualifications. I think if I were to run the experiment again with HR managers with 10 years of experience in evaluating candidates, some of the effect I found would probably disappear.
You advise large companies to use external hiring managers to prevent bias against candidates. What would you suggest for smaller companies?
Smaller companies may not have the financial resources to hire external recruiters, but what they can do is make a recruitment team composed of different kinds of people, including peers of the same status, to make sure the prospective employee would be good to get along with. Of course, including peers can create some of the problems described in my findings, so what they can do is invite employees from different departments to be a part of the recruitment process. These employees will not have knowledge of the tasks the new employee will have to perform, but they will have some objectivity and be less affected by a direct relationship of working together through competition or cooperation.
By inviting people outside the department but within the company to participate, they can get a similar effect to paying an external agency to be part of the recruitment process.