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Sun Young Lee

UCL School of Management

Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour

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Recruitment bias: would you hire the handsome fella first?


Despite good intentions, research has shown that a candidate’s looks can often bias the interview process – sometimes without the interviewer even realising it. So how can HR professionals avoid this situation and ensure their organisation is hiring the best person for the job?

In today’s working environment we are increasingly aware of encouraging diversity in the workplace and much has been written about avoiding bias during the interview process.

Despite this, there are often other factors at play in these situations that override professional considerations.

With these observations in mind, my paper published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes examined the impact of job candidates’ physical attractiveness and decision-makers’ self-interests in selection choices.

My research is motivated by two observations in daily life:

  • Our judgements of other people are often affected by stereotypical knowledge associated with them, such as gender or physical appearance, particularly when more objective information about these individuals is limited.
  • Employees may sometimes be put in situations in which their own self-interests go against that of the organisation they belong to. For example, recruiting a competent-looking candidate may threaten some existing employees while benefiting the company.

What did we find out?

Through four experiments, we found that good-looking male candidates were stereotyped as more competent than less good-looking ones.

Female candidates’ looks, on the other hand, did not affect their perceived competence.

We extended beyond the previous research on the role of stereotypes in selection decisions and predicted that men’s good looks, which are associated with competence, had different effects on decision-makers’ preferences, depending on the working relationship expected with the candidate.

Would they have to co-operate or compete?

While bosses and colleagues who expect to co-operate may find good-looking male candidates helpful to their self-interests, those who expect competition may view them as strong competitors and thus threatening.

Supporting our predictions, across all studies, good-looking male candidates were preferred when co-operation was expected, but the pattern reversed when competition was expected.

The benefits of recruitment buy-in – and a potential problem

These days, more companies like Google, J.P. Morgan, and Citibank are involving employees in recruiting future peers. In many academic institutions, lecturers and professors are the key decisions-makers in selecting new faculty members into their departments.

This practice may benefit organisations by making employees feel engaged. It also further checks the candidate’s fit with the specific task and culture that may not be very detectable only relying on a CV or exam scores.

HR professionals are less susceptible to stereotypical judgments and therefore make ideal panel members for any interview situation.

Our findings suggest that organisations should be more careful in implementing such practices because certain cultures and reward systems may encourage employees to make hiring decisions that serve self-interests rather than the organisation’s goal of bringing in the best candidates.

How can HR take action on these results?

Awareness is a good remedy for those recruiting, as I believe that we often tend to make self-interested decisions without knowing it.

There’s a wider role for HR professionals in optimising recruitment processes.

HR professionals, whether they belong to the HR department of the organisation or to external agencies, can bring more objective input about the candidate and thus improve procedural fairness and the quality of hiring decisions.

Since their rewards or tasks won’t be interdependent with those of the candidate, HR professionals have little motivation to regard competent-looking candidates as future competitors.

They’re also less likely to discriminate against them even when the organisation has competitive reward systems and cultures.

Through their years of experience and training, HR professionals are also less susceptible to stereotypical judgments and therefore make ideal panel members for any interview situation.

This research was carried out by the author, Sun Young Lee, an assistant professor of organisational behaviour at the University College London School of Management. It was conducted with researchers from the University of Maryland, London Business School, and Insead.

One Response

  1. Good article. There is
    Good article. There is plenty of research and evidence that our society is in favour of those who are more attractive, male and female. There is also evidence of bias in respect of regional accents (remember Prof Honey’s work in the 90’s). Add to that any bias’s based on our historical personal experiences, our own cultural background (as someone with a working class background I used to dislike the ‘posh’ accents of public schoolboys – I’ve overcome this now 😉 and I’m sure my Essex accent wouldn’t have gone down well with them). Stepping back to try and understand someones real capability and ability to take on a role based on evidence is a real skill and very difficult to do. We tend to start with ‘people like me and people not like me’. Perhaps starting with a list of one’s own prejudices and bias’s would be a good place to start? I know some of mine….but not all, I suspect.

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Sun Young Lee

Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour

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