Don’t let your company fall victim to beauty bias

Human Resource Management International Digest

ISSN: 0967-0734

Article publication date: 18 July 2008



Pitt, M. (2008), "Don’t let your company fall victim to beauty bias", Human Resource Management International Digest, Vol. 16 No. 5.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Don’t let your company fall victim to beauty bias

Article Type: Employment law outlook From: Human Resource Management International Digest, Volume 16, Issue 5

Some 70 percent of UK workers are now employed in the service sector, and it is a fact of life that we base our first impressions of many of them – and of the organizations they represent – on their appearance.

Service organizations from airlines to advertising agencies, hotels to health centers and restaurants to retirement homes therefore strive to ensure that their people “look the part” – sometimes through a formal dress code.

There was enough surplus material in the lapels and flares of the suit I wore for my first-ever day at the office in 1979 to construct a marquee. Why, I pondered as I looked over the old photographs of my expansive sideburns and droopy moustache, did my employer’s dress code give me so much rope on which to hang myself?

The answer, of course, is that fashions change but a well-drafted dress code goes on and on.

Take trouser suits. Few women wore them for work in the 1970s, but now they are an essential part of the wardrobe of the well-dressed woman-about-town. Any 1970s dress code that required women to wear skirts or dresses for work would certainly have had to be redrafted by now. But a code that simply laid down that employees should be “of smart appearance” would not.

Loosely drawn dress codes, based on common-sense principles, can also help to protect an organization against discrimination claims. But codes that define too tightly what may or may not be worn can sometimes be used as evidence against a company.

Take the collar and tie. A few years ago, a Stockport civil servant won his sex-discrimination case against the Department for Work & Pensions because its “smart casual” code allowed female employees to wear t-shirts or football tops at work, while the men had to wear collar and tie. The civil servant successfully claimed he was a victim of “gender stereotyping”.

The ruling does not mean that men and women have to dress the same way or that, for example, men should be allowed to wear their hair as long as women. But it does mean that no dress code should require one sex to dress more formally than the other.

Nor should the dress code infringe religious principles. A code that forbids headgear, for example, discriminates against male Sikhs, who must wear a turban.

In certain circumstances – for health and safety reasons, for example – employers may be able objectively to justify a code that infringes religious principles. But the courts tend to be cautious about siding with employers in cases like this.

Dress codes do not have to impose the same standards on all groups of workers. Companies are well within their rights to insist that employees who regularly meet customers and members of the public must dress more smartly than those who never leave the back office or production floor.

While there is much that an organization can do to ensure that its employees are smartly dressed, this must not be allowed to spill over into a “beauty bias”.

Studies have revealed that attractive people are between two and five times more likely to be hired than unattractive people, slim women earn around 10 percent more than larger women doing the same job, tall men earn more than short men, and unattractive people are two to four times more likely to be laid off than their more attractive colleagues.

This is obviously as unfair as any form of outlawed discrimination – on the basis of gender, disability or race, for example. But there is so far no sign that British legislators are about to follow those in California, where it is illegal to discriminate against job-seekers based on their weight or height.

Part of the reason is that it would be extremely difficult to draft workable laws that counter “lookism” in all its forms. But this should not prevent employers framing their own policies to minimize the risk of a beauty bias.

Most obviously, companies should avoid referring to appearance when drawing up job advertisements. Recruitment officers and managers should be trained to focus on abilities rather than appearance. Businesses should be aware of, and accommodate, the dress restrictions placed on some racial, ethnic or religious groups. And firms should be flexible about employees’ appearance – within the boundaries of the corporate image they seek to project.

Mike PittMike Pitt is an employment-law partner at UK solicitors Pearson Hinchliffe. He can be contacted by e-mail at

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