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“Ugly” workers are belittled and bullied at work

Wednesday, July 10, 2013
posted by Rita Handrich

ugly sheepWe’ve written before about the advantages of being attractive. Anatomy may be destiny for some unfortunate “ugly criminals” who are sent to jail in higher numbers than their more attractive counterparts. Being pretty almost always has advantages although we did find one time when being pretty was a definite disadvantage and resulted in more likelihood of jail time.

So this new research was intriguing to us. Although not uplifting and not very surprising. The researchers questioned 114 health care facility employees in the southeastern United States. Participants reported how often they were treated badly by coworkers. Then, their attractiveness (based on a digital photograph) was rated by people who didn’t know them and their friendliness/disagreeableness reported on by people close to them. (Why anyone would agree to participate in this sort of anxiety-inducing research is an unanswered question.)

As it turns out, if you are considered unattractive, you are more likely to be bullied and belittled in the workplace. The good news though, is that personality does matter. While unattractive people reported they were often the recipient of hurtful talk, rudeness and made the object of derision–so were people who were described as disagreeable by “spouses, partners or good friends”. The researchers say that knowing who the targets are of belittling and bullying behavior in the workplace can help managers target prevention efforts.

It is always a puzzle though–are unattractive and disagreeable people more likely to report mistreatment either because they expect mistreatment or because they are simply focused in a negative direction? Do unattractive or disagreeable people just complain more? Or is their report of mistreatment accurate? It is hard to say. It would be hard also to imagine a manager approaching an employee and saying something to the tune of

Because you are unattractive and/or disagreeable, I am going to watch out for others mistreating you” or

Pay attention to not mistreating your coworkers who are disagreeable or unattractive”.

That is a workplace in-service I would be interested in watching. These are research findings that are perhaps more useful to an HR consultant than to a manager in search of new management strategies for workplace implementation. And sometimes, we see novel approaches to being bullied or belittled or taunted. Here’s what happened recently at the Dallas, Texas Zoo when school children screamed repeatedly through a window at a large gorilla that he was ugly. While most belittled employees would not do this in response to coworker taunts, we imagine most would like to try it.

Brent A. Scott, & Timothy A. Judge (2013). Beauty, Personality, and Affect as Antecedents of Counterproductive Work Behavior Receipt. Human Performance, 26 (2) DOI: 10.1080/08959285.2013.765876

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