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Forget qualifications! Looks get the job!

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FTdynamo.com Companies employ people more on the basis of what they look like than on their qualifications say FTdynamo. This is the twelfth in a series of columns written for HR Zone from the new management education portal.


It may not be exactly news but it is now official – companies employ people more on the basis of what they look like than on their qualifications.

According to a report from the UK’s Industrial Society, a think-tank on work and employment, a growing number of UK companies have acknowledged the pulling power of what the IS calls “accessorised employees” and are opting for staff who reflect their company image. The report is based on work by two academics, Chris Warhurst and Dennis Nickson of Strathclyde University in Scotland.

With an increasing trend, especially in the fast-growing service sector, for companies to choose staff for their presentation rather than technical skills or experience, they say that government training policy must urgently address the issue or risk creating an employment underclass which fails to meet the “aesthetic’’ standards of prospective employers. While the report says that the rise in “aesthetic labour” increases the potential for discrimination, it argues that creating training initiatives that address these needs is a more realistic approach to social inclusion than ignoring or condemning them – options which could hamper economic competitiveness and social mobility.

“Middle-class concerns about social engineering – what might be termed the Eliza Doolittle syndrome – should not be allowed to cloud the issue,” says the report. “Equipping unemployed people with aesthetic skills enhances their self-confidence and, importantly, their employability. Given this reality, why should middle-class professionals and politicians be the only ones to make use of the image-makers?”

Though the report focuses on the Scottish city of Glasgow, employer demand for people who can embody their company ethos extends across the UK. Examples of the sort of discrimination highlighted by the authors’ research include: a supermarket check-out worker who was sent home by her manager to shave her legs so she wouldn’t “put customers off”; a pregnant sales assistant sacked for becoming “too fat and ugly”; and a male off-shore oil worker dismissed for being too fat.

Chris Warhurst says: “Aesthetics have always been important to companies and to certain groups of employees. Politicians, managers, professionals and city types recognise the career benefits of dressing for success. And the name and visual style of an organisation are sometimes the most important factors in making it appear unique. What is startling is the application of highly prescriptive aesthetic values in the wider job market. The danger is that many people in deprived areas are being denied work because of a lack of cultural capital.”

All this, of course, has been well known in the US for years, where there are hints that the “dress-down” culture associated with the high-tech boom is giving way to more formal attire. One of the most successful US charities of recent years, for example, is Dress for Success, started in 1996, which supplies low-income and other disadvantaged women with suitable clothing to help them get a job. The charity accepts donations only of “interview suits”. When recipients land a job they receive another smart suit.


FTdynamo features writing and research from leading business schools and management consultancies with expert insight and analysis from FTdynamo. A free trial of its services is available at www.ftdynamo.com

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