Unattractive employees are more likely to be on the receiving end of “rude, uncivil and even cruel treatment” in the workplace, according to new research from two US universities.
The study by University of Notre Dame professor Timothy Judge and Michigan State University’s Brent Scott is the first to link attractiveness to cruelty in the workplace.
“We find that unattractive individuals are more likely the subject of rude, uncivil and even cruel treatment by their coworkers. And not only do we, as a society, perceive attractive and unattractive coworkers differently, we act on those perceptions in ways that are hurtful,” Judge said.
The study surveyed workers at a health care facility, asking them how often their co-workers treated them cruelly, said hurtful things, acted rudely and made fun of them. Through digital photos, the workers’ “attractiveness” was then judged by others who didn’t know them.
They found that personality and appearance both affected who became a target of “counterproductive workplace behaviour” (CWB).
“Disagreeable employees were more likely to receive, and when age was taken into account, physically unattractive employees were more likely to receive CWB,” the researchers said, adding that young workers were most likely to be targeted.
They suggested managers could use the information to assess who the likely targets were, and take steps to monitor and mitigate how they were treated.
“Awareness is surely one important step,” Judge said. "If we recognize our biases and are more open and honest about their pervasiveness, we’ll be in much better shape to combat the influence.”
Those who had been targeted in the past could also help themselves by acknowledging that although it is unfair, the impact of appearance and personality on workplace acceptance is undeniable. The researchers said phrases such as the “power of nice” and “dress for success” were simplistic, but by attempting to act in more agreeable ways, and looking well-presented in the office victims may be able to reduce how much they are targeted.
“Research on harmful behaviors has shown that victims of such behaviors suffer a number of adverse emotional and physical effects,” the researchers said. “Overall… although knowledge of target characteristics can be used by others to simply blame victims, it can also be used in beneficial ways to help them.”