It may not be fair, but it's not illegal. It's reality, according to a new book by a University of Texas economics professor who contends that good-looking folks earn higher wages, get better jobs and have more success in the workplace.
That translates into an extra $230,000 in lifetime earnings for an average-looking employee, compared with one who is below average on the attractiveness scale, according to Daniel Hamermesh, author of Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful. Typical characteristics that determine wages such as education, race and type of job were factored out, leaving good looks — or the lack thereof — as the driving influence.
Companies benefit, too, Hamermesh said, citing an advertising agency study that found better-looking employees sold more than at agencies whose employees weren't as comely.
Hamermesh, the Sue Killam Professor in the Foundations of Economics at UT, has been interested in the economics of beauty for several years. He explained, in dollars and cents, what many have already assumed.
"It's true," said Jamie Belinne, assistant dean for career services at the University of Houston's C.T. Bauer College of Business. In the years she's counseled students, Belinne has seen attractive graduates get more interviews and get better job offers, even if they weren't as good academically.
"Our beautiful people did very well," she said. "It almost became a bad joke."
The law doesn't ban discrimination against less attractive people. It does, however, protect against age or gender bias, so a legal complaint conceivably could link one of those protections to beauty.
When graduates apply for jobs in certain industries — ones such as investment banking, consulting and sales that put employees in front of clients — career counselors have learned to tell students how to make themselves more presentable.
In some cases, that means braces. Other times, a new haircut or a better-fitting suit is enough.
If you look like Brad Pitt .
When she was working for UT in Austin, Belinne recalled, she told one graduate to lose some weight and sent him to the gym for racquetball. (It worked; he got a job.)
Clients don't typically come right out and say it, said Mike Kahn, senior partner at the Lucas Group search firm in Houston.
But he can't help but notice offices where everyone is good-looking or clients who gravitate toward job candidates who are attractive.
"If you look like Brad Pitt or Rick Perry, you will have a better chance," said Kahn, who specializes in placing candidates in human-resource positions.
For all the fashion and grooming advice Belinne offers, it's not a comfortable topic, even though it comes up often when counselors talk shop, she said.
The message is especially hard to deliver to those who have been laid off and haven't been focused on making a good impression, she said.
They may not feel very attractive, and that, in turn, affects self confidence.
The surprise? That the beauty/beast difference is bigger for men than it is for women, according to Hamermesh.
Good-looking men earn 17 percent more than men who are less than hunky. For women, the difference in wages is only 13 percent.
Poise, humor, creativity
So who is attractive? There is a surprising amount of agreement, according to the research.
When people are asked to rate the attractiveness of photographs on a five-point scale, there was general consensus on where people were on the spectrum, says Hamermesh, who describes himself as a three on the five-point scale.
So what can you do if you're not model beautiful or movie-actor handsome?
Focus on what you've got, Hamermesh said. If you're intelligent, take advantage of that. The same with humor or creativity.
Even if you're one of the 1 percent to 2 percent of the population considered homely, he said, radical plastic surgery is too expensive and too painful.
While there's no specific civil rights protection based on appearance, Hamermesh suggests it may be time to discuss whether the ugly among us need legal protections or special programs to give them a leg up in jobs or government contracts.
Or you can take Belinne's advice and update your hair and makeup.
"I've had people who look like a 4 in a photo, but when you meet them, they're a 7 or 8," she said, using the more common bubba-to-hubba-hubba scale of 1 to 10. "It's a matter of confidence."