With people putting more and more information online, it's easy for employers to Google job prospects. And while people are gradually learning the importance of deleting incriminating photos, what about simply unattractive ones? Nowadays, employers can search not only for hot candidates, but also for candidates who are hotties. And while screening candidates by their looks may be distasteful, it's not — strictly speaking — illegal.
Last week, dating website BeautifulPeople.com launched a classified service allowing potential employers the opportunity to post jobs for its members, raising hackles all across the Internet. Heretofore the site has functioned as a dating website for, as the name implies, beautiful people.
According to its founder and managing director Greg Hodge, the site uses a “democratic process” to determine who is able to join. “If you get a majority of positive votes, you’re in,” Hodge told TechNewsDaily in a recent phone interview. “Otherwise, you’re shown the door. At a nightclub, this would be the VIP room.”[See also: 8 Pro Tips for Dating Online]
And according to employment law, that process is perfectly legal. As one HR rep we spoke to (who asked not to be named) put it, “‘ugly’ is not a protected class.”
“If a hypothetical employer hired only beautiful people, and that resulted in a workforce that resembled the general population, there would not be a basis for discrimination,” Christine Nazer, a spokesperson for the U.S. government's Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) told TechNewsDaily. “There’s no specific law that prohibits discrimination per se based on height, weight, BMI [body mass index], grooming and appearance.” Protected classes include race, color, national origin, sex, age, religion, genetic information and disability, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
To some extent, studies back up the notion that it pays to be good-looking. Statistically, attractive people certainly get hired faster and get more raises. But are they actually better employees? A University of British Columbia study in 2010 showed that good-looking people are found to be more intelligent, friendly and competent than others. So if a good-looking person is pretty and vaguely organized, people will believe she is more organized than she actually is.
Several hiring representatives we spoke to (who did not want to be quoted directly) agreed that good-looking people do sell more. University of Chicago researcher Dario Maestripieri calls this “the pleasure of dealing with good-looking people.” He claims that customers who find their salesperson attractive will be more likely to buy the product — believing it will increase the chance of having sex with said salesperson. [See also: The 10 Most Dangerous Women Online]
Like the idea or not, recruiting exclusively from a pool of pretty people is now an option. Companies from all around the world may post on the site (except in the District of Columbia, where, according to the disclaimer on BeautifulPeople, this practice does in fact run afoul of the law). The service is being offered free to employers, who do not need to be vetted by site members to recruit.
Even if employers didn’t use a dating website to post jobs, it’s easy enough to Google a name and find a candidate’s photos, videos and tweets, and proceed to discriminate based on that information. “Hiring discrimination is difficult to detect,” Ernest Haffner, an attorney with the EEOC told TechNewsDaily. “With a termination or not getting a promotion … they have some evidence as to how other people in a particular group are treated. There’s less investment when you just apply for a job, so people may be less inclined to complain.”
In order for a case to go to trial, a charge must first be filed. (Of the 100,000 or so cases brought to the EEOC, roughly 500, or half of 1 percent, get to trial.) Discriminatory ads have historically been the basis for the EEOC to file charges, but because these companies operate behind a firewall, that’s unlikely to happen. TechNewsDaily was not able to obtain access to view the recruitment area in order “to protect members’ privacy,” Hodge said.
When asked how the EEOC might operate against these technological constraints, Haffner told TechNewsDaily, “I honestly don’t know how this would be resolved.”
Perhaps it’s just a matter of time. In 2004, the EEOC sued Abercrombie & Fitch for, according to Nazer, hiring only candidates with an “all-American” look. “It was a proxy for hiring only white kids,” Nazer said. “Beauty discrimination is really a proxy for discrimination based on other attributes. It’s like [BeautifulPeople.com is] begging to be noticed by us.”
However, paying out a $50 million claim in 2004 didn’t stop Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries from telling Salon in 2006 “we hire good-looking people in our stores.” Ironically, just last month, this old quote resurfaced online, with people commenting about Jeffries' own lack of good looks.
Since launching BeautifulPeople.com's new service last Monday, Hodge says they’ve posted between 60 and 70 jobs and have more in the pipeline. “There’s an application process,” he said, citing the website’s “perfect safety record.” He says they’re committed to ensuring the jobs posted are genuine.
“It might not give us all a warm fuzzy feeling inside,” Hodge said. “But there’s no denying the fact that we as a society are more open to attractive people.”