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Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Why a better Facebook photo can land you a better job

There is a large body of research suggesting that employers often discriminate on the basis of looks, gender, race and caste

Can a more attractive Facebook profile picture boost your job prospects? A recently published research paper by Stijn Baert of Ghent University suggests that it can. Based on an experiment conducted in Belgium, Baert found that companies have a tendency to hire candidates with better Facebook profile pictures.

Baert’s experiment involved sending fictitious applications to real job openings in Belgium. For each job opening, a pair of applications were sent that were nearly identical to each other in terms of educational attainments and other characteristics that may favourably affect productivity. The only difference was in the Facebook profile picture that could be found online with their name.

Baert found that “candidates with the most beneficial Facebook picture obtain approximately 39% more job interview invitations compared to candidates with the least beneficial picture". “In addition, we find suggestive evidence for a higher effect of Facebook profile picture appearance on hiring chances when candidates are highly educated and when recruiters are female," wrote Baert.

Baert’s findings suggest that employers in Belgium place a very high premium on physical attractiveness. While the extent of that premium may vary across time and place, there is a large body of research suggesting that employers often discriminate on the basis of looks, gender, race and caste.

As an earlier Economics Express column pointed out, labour markets are plagued by different kinds of discrimination. When companies are unable to assess the value of prospective hires perfectly, they resort to screen them on the basis of caste, race, gender and looks.

In a crowded job market, physical attractiveness can fetch you a better deal. The marketers of fairness cream in this country exaggerate only slightly when they suggest that a “fair complexion" can land you a better job. The obsession with “fairness" may be unique to India, but the premium on looks appears to be omnipresent.

Across the world, companies may find it desirable to hire employees with better Facebook display pictures, just as they may prefer candidates with familiar surnames.

US economist Daniel Hamermesh, the most prominent voice against such “lookism", in a 1994 American Economic Review paper, co-authored with Jeff Biddle, documented the pervasive beauty premium effects in the labour market using survey data from the US and Canada. Hamermesh and Biddle wrote that appearance discrimination cuts across gender and occupations.

“Plain people earn less than average-looking people, who earn less than the good-looking," they wrote. “The plainness penalty is 5-10%, slightly larger than the beauty premium. Effects for men are at least as great as for women. Unattractive women have lower labour-force participation rates and marry men with less human capital. Better-looking people sort into occupations where beauty may be more productive; but the impact of individuals’ looks is mostly independent of occupation, suggesting the existence of pure employer discrimination."

Discrimination due to appearance starts right from the stage of applications. Do CVs with photographs, and those with better looks, receive more attention from employers? Behavioural economists Bradley Ruffle and Ze’ev Shtudiner, in a 2014 Management Science paper, tried to find an answer. They sent out more than 5,000 CVs in pairs identical in all respect except that one of the CVs had photographs with better appearance. Better-looking men had much better odds of receiving a call back from the employers.

Interestingly, more attractive women enjoyed no such premium. Ruffle and Shtudiner attributed this to the fact that most human resource employees are females, and that they might be jealous of an attractive prospective employee.

The beauty premium also helps politicians win elections. Niclas Berggren of the Ratio Institute in Stockholm and others in a 2010 Journal of Public Economics study found damning evidence that people prefer beauty over other important traits such as competence and intelligence. Berggren et al. showed photographs of close to 2,000 Finnish politicians to around 17,000 foreigners and found that attractive politicians had better electoral fortunes.

It is mythically presumed that more beautiful is also more productive. In a 2006 paper, Markus Mobius of Microsoft Corp. and Tanya Rosenblat of the University of Michigan ran an experiment in which employers hire workers to perform a simple maze-solving task.

Each employer is supposed to set a target for the worker based on following attributes of worker—CV, CV plus a photo, CV and a phone interview and CV, photo and a phone interview. In all scenarios, employers were willing to pay more for better looking candidates. The duo showed that productivity at solving the maze is not driven by beauty.

Prejudices in hiring employees can be costly. Labour market discrimination imposes a heavy burden on the economy, suggest Stanford economists Peter Klenow, Charles Jones and their colleagues. Their calculations suggest that a decline in occupational segregation in the US has contributed to about two-fifth of output growth.

“Our results imply that changes in occupational barriers facing blacks and women can potentially explain 15-20% of aggregate growth in output per worker between 1960 and 2008," they wrote. “These estimates are 40% larger than what we find with a simple back-of-the-envelope calculation. Furthermore, essentially all of the gain is driven by the movement of women into high-skilled occupations. We infer that changes in occupational barriers may have raised real wages by roughly 40% for white women, 60% for black women, and 45% for black men, but lowered them by about 5% for white men. Again, that wages of white men may have suffered is one important reason why a simple back-of-the-envelope calculation could underestimate the importance of declining labour market frictions in explaining aggregate productivity growth."

If there are costs associated with discriminating against “ugly" or Dalit or Muslim candidates, what could be done to change things? One of the things that many countries have tried is anonymous applications.

Annabelle Krause, Ulf Renne and Klaus Zimmerman of a German labour economics research organization IZA studied the effects of anonymous applications in case of economics PhD students looking for jobs in Europe. They found that the name-blind process did not improve the probability of being invited for a job interview. Also, women, who were previously more likely to receive a call were hurt by the anonymous process.

Anonymous CV shortlisting may eliminate one or more forms of biases. Once hiring is done, at least some of our prejudices are likely to reappear, Hamermesh argued forcefully in a New York Times op-ed piece.

“Most of us, regardless of our professed attitudes, prefer as customers to buy from better-looking salespeople, as jurors to listen to better-looking attorneys, as voters to be led by better-looking politicians, as students to learn from better-looking professors," wrote Hamermesh. “This is not a matter of evil employers refusing to hire the ugly: in our roles as workers, customers and potential lovers, we are all responsible for these effects."

Economic research shows that contemporary fixation on looking good is problematic. However, there are no easy fixes to remedy this problem.

Economics Express runs weekly, and features interesting reads from the world of economics and finance.

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