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Beauty and the business: why looks increasingly matter at work

Aesthetics are becoming increasingly important in the modern workplace. flickr_thinkpanama

Looks matter, both in our social and working lives. We want to look good and our employers expect us to look good, or at least want us to look a particular way. This requirement is a double-edge sword for workers. While it can be beneficial, it can also lead to a new form of employment discrimination.

Being good looking has a positive impact on our lives. It helps us attract sexual partners, people like being with us and they ascribe good qualities to our character.

Being good looking also helps our employment prospects. A raft of research from the US and UK has now established that being perceived to be attractive improves our chances of obtaining work, and boosts our pay and career prospects. Line managers also rate the performances of attractive workers more highly. Finally, attractive workers are less likely to lose their jobs.

A beauty premium thus exists for attractive workers and a beauty penalty for those deemed unattractive.

Through the media, the thin, blond and blue-eyed appearance has become firmly embedded in our social expectations of what looking good means – and is spreading as an aspiration from Western countries to Africa and Asia. Even if that look is beyond the reach of many of us, we now do what might be termed “body work” - trying to keep our bodies looking good for as long as possible.

We work out at the gym or attend pilates and yoga classes to keep ourselves in shape. Sales of cosmetics to women continue to increase and the male market for cosmetics has finally begun to boom. According to Geoffrey Jones, author of Beauty Imagined, a recent book on the development of the big cosmetic companies, the new target will be teenagers.

We also let others work on our bodies to make them look better through cosmetic, now usually called “aesthetic”, surgery.

In the workplace too expectations are changing, driven by the expansion of the service sector. In the past, men who bashed bits of metal in manufacturing plants never met the customer. How they looked at work had no impact on the company’s business.

Now more of us interact with customers. In the larger cities as many as 80% of workers are now employed in services. These workers embody their organisation’s image and employee looks can affect the bottom line because they provide customers with their first impression of the company.

Employees’ comportment, speech and dress send out signals about their company. Banks, for example, want their workers to dress smartly and be polite; restaurants with a “Florida beach girl” theme want sassy waitresses dressed in skimpy clothing. We are part of the product being sold.

When organisations prescribe and enforce how their employees look and sound, it is called “aesthetic labour”. The shorthand definition of aesthetic labour is employees who are hired because they look good or sound right and those characteristics are an integral feature of employees’ work in interacting with customers.

However it is not just conventionally good looking employees that are being sought; companies sometimes just want employees with the right look. Visible tattoos might be expected on surf shop or hip cafe workers but not on workers in upmarket department stores.

As research by Diane van den Broek and Richard Hall has shown, the Sydney retail industry places great weight on aesthetic labour. It is also found in the hospitality, call centre and airline industries. Aesthetic labour has “demonstration effects” on other industries, as other employers pick up on how aesthetic labour can generate new and repeat custom. It means that employees are being hired because of the way that they look and sound or, through training, the way that they can be made to look and sound.

By selecting these workers, companies are being discriminatory. Of course all recruitment and selection discriminates between applicants. Some of the factors used to discriminate are lawful – education, for example; other are not – race and sex most obviously.

Employment discrimination on the basis of employee appearance is called “lookism”. It can refer to immutable physical features such as birthmarks as well as aspects of our appearance that we can change such as dress style and tattoos.

At the moment lookism is a grey area legally. Most countries, including Australia, do not legislate against it but claims of what are effectively lookism are often brought by trade unions and individuals using equal opportunities legislation based on sex, disability or religion. In the UK in 2009 Riam Dean famously won a case against Abercrombie & Fitch claiming discrimination because her prosthetic arm contravened the company’s employee looks policy.

Victoria does overtly legislate against lookism. In research that I’ve conducted with colleagues at Sydney University, the number of claims has steadily risen since the law’s introduction in 1995. Claims of lookism come mainly from women and workers in the service industries. Unexpectedly, there are a rising number of claims from men and from workers in non-service occupations and industries such as labouring and manufacturing.

This trend emphasises how looks at work matter to an increasing number of employees and across occupations and industries. As we become more body conscious in and out of work, pressure on us all to look good is likely to increase. Some workers will benefit, other workers look likely to lose.

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