Focus on Research

May 23, 2014 11:04 am

A bad hair day can have corporate consequences, says researchers

Is your boss having a bad hair day? Then this might be the time to ask for a pay rise.

According to research from academics at Stanford GSB, when people feel they are looking unattractive – a shaving accident or a bad hair cut – they are more egalitarian in their approach to colleagues. Conversely, if they feel they are looking attractive, then they believe they belong to a higher social group – and that is bad news for those below them in the social and corporate hierarchy.

Indeed those managers who perceive themselves to be attractive are more likely to believe that their employees have only themselves to blame for their lowly position in the organisation.

The research into perceptions of physical attractiveness was triggered in part by the observation that, even in the depth of the recent recession, spending on cosmetic surgery in the US did not fall, says Margaret Neale, professor of management at Stanford. Indeed in the US, cosmetic surgery is the fastest-growing medical expenditure, according to Prof Neale and fellow researcher Peter Belmi, a doctoral student.

What is more, those countries that spend most on cosmetic surgery are also those with the highest income equality – the US and Brazil. The inference is that feeling attractive is important in climbing the corporate and social ladder.

Although most people will recognise that a new outfit or a spa treatment will make them feel more attractive, what impressed the Stanford researchers was the extent to which this carried through to every day life. “We were surprised by the broadness of the effect,” says Prof Neale. “The way people behave may in a small part be about how they feel about themselves.”

Indeed, the sentiment can even affect philanthropy. Among the five experiments the two academics ran was one in which individuals were asked to donate to a charity. Those individuals who were not feeling attractive were willing to give; those who felt particularly attractive were largely unwilling.

The Stanford researchers believe the research has implications for many aspects of corporate life, including negotiations – anything from an individual payrise to a corporate takeover bid.

Prof Neale is swift to point out that she and Mr Belmi made no judgments on how attractive the research participants were – it was their perceptions of themselves that were important. Though she does point out that physical attractiveness in itself usually brings benefits – but not always.

“People are more likely to pay us attention [if we are attractive],” she says. “For male leaders, attractiveness is positively correlated. But for women it can be problematic.”

The research paper “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who’s the Fairest of Them All” is to be published in the journal Organisational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

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