Facial Flaws Can Cost You The Job

appearance stereotypes interviewsBy Kelly Eggers

It's no secret that keeping up appearances -- e.g. arriving clean-shaven and well-dressed for interviews -- is critical to success in a job hunt. However, what about the features out of your control? A new study from Rice University and the University of Houston finds that poor ratings in job interviews can be attributed to more than just poor attire or inarticulate answers.

In two separate studies, the university researchers found that job candidates who had facial blemishes, such as distinctive scars or port wine stains, fared worse in interview settings than those who didn't.

When an interviewer's attention is taken off what a candidate is saying about themselves or their qualifications, he or she recalls less information about the applicant after the interview has ended. This leads them to rank the applicant lower than they may have otherwise.

The first of the two studies involved 171 undergraduate students, whose eye movements were tracked while they watched a computer-mediated interview; they were later asked to remember information about the candidate. The researchers found that the more the interviewers' eyes focused on blemished areas of the face, the less they could recall about the candidate, and the lower they rated them as an applicant.

Co-author of the research, Mikki Hebl, a psychology professor at Rice University, said the results didn't come as a shock. "I wish I could say I was surprised, but I was not," she said in an email to FINS. The researchers found that overt imperfections, which should have no relevance to a candidate's abilities, can be distracting to the point that they impact how well a candidate is evaluated.

"Thus, we begin with a stereotype, and never gain the information -- because we aren't paying attention -- that we would need to positively evaluate the candidate," Hebl said. "Initially, and in the absence of other information about people, we are very keen to make judgments based on looks. However, when we learn more and more about people, what they look like and their facial blemishes become much less important."

Seasoned hiring managers and corporate recruiters might believe they're making judgements based on looks, but the studies suggest otherwise. The second of the two studies, which involved face-to-face interviews between experienced hiring managers and job candidates with birthmarks, found that having more tenure, experience or education in hiring practices had no effect on one's ability to remain focused on the content of an interview.

"Stereotypes influence everyone, regardless of age, experience, and background," said Hebl, "and most people are particularly attentive to novel stimuli and stimuli that are negative."

These results have a greater reach beyond facial imperfections. In other research, Hebl and her colleagues have found that "overweight individuals, pregnant women, individuals perceived to be sloppy by being depicted in casual instead of professional clothing and physically disabled individuals all fare worse in job interviews than their nonstigmatized counterparts."

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