The Beauty Premium

Ladies, I think we always knew it was the case, but now it’s confirmed. Yes, the workplace is a beauty contest. And there’s a lot of research to back up the uncomfortable reality that attractive people get hired over those less so. And to add insult to injury, beautiful people get paid more, too!

Two prominent economists, Markus Mobius of Harvard and Tanya Rosenblat of Wesleyan, proved it with a research study based on a mock labor market where students were employers and job seekers. The job was solving mazes. The job seekers filled out a resume and then were given a simple maze to solve. To measure self-confidence, job applicants were asked to estimate how many mazes they could solve in 15 minutes.

What the researchers did next was to have each employer hire a small number of job applicants. Some employers only considered the resumes of potential employees. Others saw a resume and photograph. Some saw a resume and had a telephone interview. Others received resume, a telephone interview and a photograph. The last group had the whole nine yards – a resume, telephone and an in-person interview.

Guess what, those with good looks were no better at solving mazes than less attractive people (Whew!).

But, when employers saw a picture or met the job applicant, the beauty premium kicked in. Attractive people got the jobs, the bigger salaries and received higher expectations. And both men and women employers had the beauty bias (so it’s just not the men looking to hire babes).

So, ladies, while we make not like it, image makes a difference in how we are perceived. Our success in the workplace, as in life, is based on creating positive impressions about ourselves. That’s why we have to take it seriously.

Looks have a halo effect. That’s why marketers are into packaging and design. And we need to create a look that shows each of us to advantage so people assume a lot of positive attributes about us too – that we’re smart, productive and right for the job.

While you may not be ready to strut down the runway (neither am I), we can create an attractive image. Here are five tips from my new book, U R a Brand, How Smart People Brand Themselves for Business Success, recipient of the Ben Franklin award for best career book 2007:

1. Package yourself. Brand managers pay a lot of attention to packaging. You should too since visual impressions are powerful. We are pegged in a matter of seconds: good – bad, hire – don’t hire, successful – loser. It all happens in the first few seconds. It’s based on snap visual impressions: how you look, your clothes. Of course, clothes won’t make a difference in how well you do your job, yet they will have a significant effect on how you are perceived on the job. Clothes are a quick read and one of the easiest ways to communicate a message about who you are.

2. Emphasize an unusual or different feature. Today, interesting-looking people are attractive. After all, you don’t want to look like everyone else. You are an original and want your own vibe. Having different looks can be very effective in building a powerful and attractive image. Think how Barbra Streisand, Andy Warhol, and Arnold Schwarzeneggar all dramatized their usual looks, features or shape.

3. Have a trademark. Developing a signature item as a trademark is smart personal branding that will set you apart from the crowd. You’re creating a branded element that identifies you like a logo on a product. Chosen well, it will convey a brand message to others and even change the way you see yourself. Larry King has his suspenders, Jackie Kennedy had her pillbox hats and then her oversized sunglasses. Steve Jobs has his jeans. And Bono has his tinted wraparound glasses.

4. Don’t neglect your hair. Hair is a terrific device for building a powerful visual identity. Think of Dolly Parton vs. Laura Bush. Don King vs. Dr. Phil. Donald Trump’s hair has become as much a trademark of his visual identity as the trophy wife and oversize yacht. Even the lack of hair can be attractive if you fully shave your head to accentuate the shape and silhouette.

5. Focus on “soft power.” One thing to think about is executive presence. How do you enter a room? Do you stand tall and walk purposefully? Or do you slouch and look distracted? Another aspect of executive presence is comportment.- your way of conducting yourself in interacting with others. Comportment is knowing how to behave in expected and unexpected situations regardless of how many eyes are on you.


  1. says

    Jessica ~I love this article!! The topic needed to be unfolded and researched! It’s informative and helpful, especially in today’s job market. My message to ladies all ages is to know the power of a lipstick and looking polished whatever you do in life. I’d love to share this article and your site among my social community on facebook, twitter, an link it to my blog if I may? Thanks for the great posts! Lisa Marie

  2. says

    Very interesting article with lots of good information.For those of us who are not movie star beautiful, we can still be visually attractive by learning how to use color and style and proportion to look visually balanced. This visual balance actually changes the onlookers brain waves to alpha waves.

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