Does a ‘beauty premium’ exist in the Indian workplace?

Physical appearance and looks may be important when it comes to making a first impression

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A recent study by the University at Buffalo School of Management found that the more attractive people are, the greater their chance of getting hired and receiving better performance evaluations. The study, published in the journal, ‘Personnel Psychology’, elaborates that while a ‘beauty premium’ exists in the professional world, it is owed to the fact that people who are conventionally better looking have a comparatively greater sense of power and are naturally better non-verbal communicators.

The study was conducted in two parts, where the researchers evaluated 300 elevator pitches of participants in a mock job interview process.

The first study led managers to determine that better-looking people were more hireable due to their non-verbal presence.

“I would never make a decision based on attractive looks, because there is no correlation between people’s physical appearance and the way they function”

Amit Sharma, CHRO, Volvo Group, India

According to Min-Hsuan Tu, PhD, assistant professor of organisation and human resources in the UB School of Management, the idea was to find out whether there exists an overall bias toward beauty on the job, or whether attractive people actually excel on the professional front because they communicate more effectively.

Researchers asked the lesser attractive participants to adopt certain physical postures to check if they are able to lessen the advantage their more attractive peers had over them, in terms of non-verbal communication. ”What we found was that while good looking people have a greater sense of power and are better non-verbal communicators, their less-attractive peers can level the playing field during the hiring process by adopting a powerful posture,” says Prof. Tu in the report.

The study reveals, “Although prior research has suggested that bias on the part of evaluators is the source of attractive individuals’ favourable career outcomes, there is also evidence that these individuals may be socialised to behave and perceive themselves differently from others in ways that contribute to their success.”

Relevance in Indian setting

The study in question was based in an American setting. Exploring its relevance in the Indian workplace, HRKatha spoke with Amit Sharma, CHRO, Volvo Group, India. “From an Indian perspective, I don’t see any correlation between looking good and professional achievement,” says Sharma, sharing a different outlook on the topic. “The first impression one gets of people is from their physical traits. As we grow, we build a perception of people based on their physical traits and these get subconsciously accumulated in our mind,” explains Sharma. Generally, people tend to associate all positive traits with ‘attractive’ people. However, in his professional experience, Sharma asserts, “I would never make a decision based on attractive looks, because there is no correlation between people’s physical appearance and the way they function.”

“In my experience, I’ve come across a lot of people who would not fit in the traditional definition of being extremely good-looking, but through their facial expressions — which convey warmth, positivity and very fine nuances — would leave a lasting impression”

Ashwin Shirali, former vice president – talent and culture, India & South Asia, Accor

 

Sharma does, however, admit that there may be a correlation between confidence and looks. “In our society, people are made to feel conscious about their appearance. Generally, people who fit the social definition of ‘good looking’ tend to be more confident. If one is confident enough internally, one will exude confidence externally. This confidence only comes when people accept who they are and not see themselves from the eyes of the external world,” he explains.

Beauty and non-verbal communication

Jitendar Panihar, global head- people & culture, MoEngage Inc., doesn’t think there exists a beauty premium, either in the Indian setting or globally. “I don’t believe a beauty premium exists, because if it did, our workforce would definitely have been lopsided. There would have been either a shortfall or an overutilisation of resources,” says Panihar. He doesn’t think the theory makes much sense in general. He feels it has more to do with knowledge, skills and abilities, which go beyond aesthetics and cosmetics. “In certain cases, individuals may be biased towards a certain affinity, which may not necessarily be beauty,” he points out.

With regard to the ability of conventionally attractive people being better non-verbal communicators, he says, “Non-verbal communication is important, but it can’t be linked with the beauty quotient. While body language, facial expressions, and so on, definitely make an impact because they reflect the confidence level and other personality traits, these have nothing to do with beauty,” he says.

“I don’t think there is a direct link to that. In my experience, I’ve come across a lot of people who would not fit in the traditional definition of being extremely good-looking, but through their facial expressions — which convey warmth, positivity and very fine nuances — would leave a lasting impression,” says Ashwin Shirali, former vice president – talent and culture, India & South Asia, Accor.

“I don’t believe a beauty premium exists, because if it did, our workforce would definitely have been lopsided. There would have been either a shortfall or an overutilisation of resources”

Jitendar Panihar, global head- people & culture, MoEngage Inc.

Irfan Sheikh, head – HR, Gits Food, is also of the belief that a beauty premium doesn’t exist, although certain roles may be suited for people with more pleasing personalities.

Disagreeing with the results of the study, he says, “Indeed, there are certain roles which require people with pleasing personalities. However, being beautiful is about how people carry themselves and what they have within them to make it to the top or be amongst the chosen few.”

For roles where an appeasing or a pleasing personality acts as a plus, Sheikh feels that comparatively less attractive people are at a disadvantage. “In certain roles, where looking good is a prerequisite, and where there is little room for compromise, nothing much can be done,” he admits.

While jobs in certain sectors may be biased towards candidates with good looks, the truth remains that a majority of job roles focus on the skills and abilities of the applicants. Traditionally, one can perceive that one such sector where good looks would matter would be the hospitality sector. Ashwin Shirali, who has been in the industry for more than 30 years, believes that the pleasantness and the toughness of a person matter more when it comes to hiring.

“Indeed, there are certain roles which require people with pleasing personalities. However, being beautiful is about how people carry themselves and what they have within them”

Irfan Sheikh, head – HR, Gits Food

“In the hospitality sector, in roles where there is a guest contact, we do need people with a smart personality. We prefer someone who can wow the guests — combining personality and intelligence in equal measure. People look for someone who can make them feel good. Generally, that comes with a warm face and a pleasing personality. Coupled with intelligence, that makes the perfect fit,” he says.

“A pleasant personality would be someone whose body language is elegant and facial expressions positive and cheerful. This conveys what the person is like from the inside. I will not focus on the beauty of a person, because I’ve come across many instances where people who fit the social definition of ‘beauty’ turn out to be anything but the best of hires,” he adds.

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