Attractiveness and being fired for poor performance
Who gets fired? The attractive, moderately attractive, or unattractive employee? Do we even need to ask this? Of course, no one wants to think we are that overtly biased as we make decisions– but we are. We hire and fire based on likability and how attractive someone is often influences how much we like them.
Being physically attractive helps you get the job, the good ratings and the promotion–so might it also protect you from “bad stuff” that can happen at work? This was the question researchers set out to explore. The researchers designed an overall poor performance evaluation and then attached three different photographs to the poor performance review. One of the photos was a very attractive woman, one was moderately attractive, and one was unattractive.
We know you want to see the pictures but they were not provided. The researchers did pilot studies where the task was to rate the attractiveness of the various photographs and assigned “very attractive”, “moderately attractive” and “unattractive” labels to those photographs identified via pilot study participants.
179 undergraduate students (106 female and 73 male) between 18 and 34 years of age participated in the study. Almost 3/4 of the participants were 18 or 19 years old. Thirty-six had been managers, 13 had terminated employees, and 24 had been terminated at some point themselves.
The participants were given a task of making decisions as the “new manager at Central Hospital”. Among their tasks was making recommendations based on a performance evaluation of a pharmacy technician (with the photo attached). The pharmacy manager was asking for assistance from the new hospital manager on whether to pursue termination. The employee had received an oral and written warning for her poor performance during her 3 month probationary period. After the warning letter, the participant saw a job description and a photograph of the employee badge (showing one of three women).
Here’s what the researchers found:
There was a slight tendency for the unattractive employee to be terminated more often than either the moderately attractive or very attractive employee.
The research participants liked the unattractive employee less than they liked the very attractive or moderately attractive employees. Participants were more likely to terminate the employee they didn’t like–hence the unattractive employee was more likely to be terminated.
Unattractive employees were slightly more likely to be seen as internally responsible for poor work performance. That is, the researchers say, the participant-”managers” were more likely to blame her for having performed poorly than they were to blame the more attractive employees.
The researchers believe attractiveness was unlikely to “protect” the good-looking employees from termination. However, there was a bias toward terminating the unattractive employee. The employees who were liked less (e.g., the unattractive employees) were judged to be more personally responsible for their poor performance and this led to their termination.
We’ve talked about the importance of paying attention to bias a lot on this blog and even about the importance of paying attention to differential hiring of potential employees by ethnicity. Here’s another wrinkle in the fabric that makes up management tasks when it comes to the potential for discrimination.
Pay attention to whether you would treat an unattractive employee more harshly than you would treat an attractive employee when it comes to termination decisions. We’re all human, after all.
Commisso, M.; Finkelstein, L. 2012 Physical attractiveness bias in employee termination. Journal of Applied Social Psychology.