14 August 2013

Too ugly or too blonde: The dilemmas and traps of looks discrimination

Recently I read about the Victorian Equal Opportunity Commission’s employment-based complaints from potential employees relating to perceived appearance-based discrimination.
 
In the past five years there have been 107 complaints about discrimination based on obesity, 96 complaints about being too ugly or blonde and 22 for tattoos or piercings, to name just three specific discriminatory categories.
 
My first thought was ‘as few as that?’. For every official complaint registered with the VEOC, I am guessing there would be 100 other people suspecting they have been discriminated against during a job interview process who decide it’s not worthwhile to take the matter any further.
 
I am sure every recruiter has had the experience of being told by a client that the candidate they sent for interview did not make it any further in the process because of some aspect of their appearance. The explicit, or implicit, client feedback was that the candidate was (at least) one of; too fat, too skinny, too unattractive, too attractive, too pierced, too inked, too smelly, too unfashionable (hair and/or clothes), too fashionable, or in some way too far away from the norms or comfort level of the employer in question.
 
Is this fair? No.
 
Is it legal? In almost all cases, no.*
 
Is this the reality of being a recruiter? Yes.
 
Will it continue for as long as people are hired? Yes.
 
I definitely experienced this ‘appearance bias’ during my time as a recruiter. I had certain clients that I knew were explicitly biased in favour of good looking candidates.
 
I remember interviewing a highly attractive, young, blonde graduate who had just started looking for a suitable career opportunity in Sydney. I knew she was a walking placement with a certain banking client; not only was she attractive, she was very smart as well.
 
I asked my candidate to wait in the interview room while I rang the client. The vacancy that he currently had registered with me wasn’t really much of a match for my candidate’s limited experience (mostly being an ‘on-premise promotional model’ for an alcoholic beverage distributor, if I recall correctly).
 
Ignoring the assignment brief I rang my client and assured him that my candidate was exactly what he was looking for. The next day when I called to see how my temp was working out on day one of her assignment, he responded with his own question; ‘is she looking for a permanent job?
 
Needless to say the perm placement was confirmed in record time and the next time I saw my candidate she was at Ryan’s Bar in Australia Square and on the arm of one of the bank’s front office hot shots (one guess as to how good looking he was).
 
There are plenty of studies confirming the greater level of success of attractive people, compared to their less attractive colleagues so it would seem that there’s a hard-wired Darwinian-type factor at play here.
 
Clearly it’s great if we can make money from our clients by presenting good looking candidates that they will hire but what about the other side of the coin?
 
How do we deal with applicants whose resumes look good but when we interview them we see that as good as their skills and attitude might be, that the good looks, prized by our client, only apply to the resume, not the resume’s owner?
 
Roughly your choices are as follows: 
  1. Fully play the client’s discriminatory game and only refer candidates that the client will regard as good looking enough to hire (recognising we are breaching anti-discrimination law the law by doing so).
  2. Partly play the client’s discriminatory game by referring all suitable candidates, along with an honest pre-interview briefing that effectively manages the client’s expectations about our candidate’s appearance. We support this by providing evidence of our candidate’s competency level matching those required of the job.
  3. Don’t play the client’s discriminatory game at all by declining to recruit on their behalf.
  4. Decide you have nothing to lose and ask the client how they managed to get their current job given how far they are from the appearance standards they are insisting on for their current vacancy (note: this is the most career-limiting option of the four choices). 
Of course there is a big difference between a candidate’s appearance that they could, if they chose to, do something about in the short term (eg piercings, clothes, hair style, etc) versus aspects of a candidate’s appearance that are not ‘fixable’ in the short term, or at all (eg weight, body shape, height, looks/attractiveness, etc).
 
As a recruiter, you can provide respectful and appropriate feedback about the first category of appearance ‘issues’ by asking the candidate if they would like some feedback that may help them obtain the job that they want. The important rule in delivering this sort of feedback is; never make a personal judgment about the issue. For example don’t say ‘I think your multiple visible piercings are turning clients off’.
 
Instead say ‘You have every right to wear whatever piercings you want. The thing to consider is that multiple visible piercings might be a distraction for an interviewer. Your piercings become the thing about you that the interviewer’s attention is immediately drawn to, distracting his or her attention from all the aspects of your experience and attitude that make you suitable for this job. I’m raising this because I want you to give yourself the best possible chance to secure this job, but it’s entirely your choice how you present yourself for an interview’.
 
Nobody likes being told what to do. All you can, and should do, is to advise the candidate what action maximises their best interests. The rest is up to them.
 
The second category of ‘appearance issues’ is very tricky. This is entering the territory of where the candidate is most likely to take offence, no matter how honourable your intentions or how delicately and respectfully you raise the issue.
 
Given the anti-discrimination legislation, and without wishing to humiliate anyone, I recommend simply don’t go there. If you do, you risk exposing yourself, your employer and potentially your client, to adverse action from the candidate. Not just potential anti-discrimination action but even more, devastating, a blitz on social media, or even the mainstream media.
 
Whatever choice you make in this area I would suggest you think very carefully about the consequences of this choice and be satisfied it is a choice you are willing to stand behind when the inevitable pressure is applied to you to make a different choice.
 
* New Zealand last month denied the continuity of a work visa to a South African chef because his morbid obesity was at risk of imposing significant demands on the country’s health service http://www.wwno.org/post/new-zealand-cites-obesity-denying-chefs-work-visa)
 
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