Recruitment's ugly face

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The Independent Online
Ugly people need not apply. That's the message an increasing number of employers are giving job-seekers, according to research from Strathclyde University in Glasgow published this week. "We first began to realise how important image is to today's employers when we saw a newspaper advert for `attractive bar staff'," explains Chris Warhurst, who led the study. "Further research revealed that more and more employers in Scotland were advertising for `stylish', `smart' and even `tasty' recruits. Then we realised that it is a trend that is being mirrored across Britain."

Mr Warhurst found, not surprisingly, that this is most prevalent in the service industry. "Banks, retail outlet shops, hotels, restaurants and bars are some of the top employers who are hiring people on the basis of looking good," he says. In fact, it has become so common that he and his fellow researchers have coined the phrase "aesthetic labour".

What's more, employers are increasingly harsh on employees who begin to slack. "Job candidates have always had to be aware of image at the interview stage," says Mr Warhurst. "The difference is that now, candidates are expected to rate this with even more importance than ever before and secondly, to do so throughout the term of their employment. In fact, many recruits are sent on style courses before being allowed to deal with the public. If at any time they neglect the teachings, they're out."

The researchers found, for instance, that a shop assistant was told to leave her post on the cash register to go home and shave her legs. Customers, she was told, would have been put off. Staff at another shop had to get permission from a supervisor before having their hair cut.

The Institute of Personnel and Development has responded to the research by claiming that at some point in their careers, most of today's human resources professionals face a situation in which they are forced to evaluate someone in terms of his or her looks, not just on qualifications or potential. "Certainly, how a person looks should never be the sole factor in recruitment, hiring, promotion or compensation, but it sometimes is part of the employment decision-making process," admits a spokesperson.

The emphasis on looks is becoming so widespread that the Wise Group - a charity that helps the long-term unemployed back into work - is to launch a course to teach job-hopefuls to make the best of themselves. "The new research from Strathclyde University has backed up what we have intuitively felt for a few years now," explains Allan Watt, development manager. "We have come to the conclusion that it would be far more constructive to help job-seekers face the reality."

Particularly fast on the increase is the practice of employers requesting photographs with applications, claims Warhurst. "In fact, many employers are more likely to do this than blatantly ask for attractive candidates. That's because they can pretend they need photographs to assist with recognition at interview stage. We suspect it is a means by which they can select the best-looking people."

Debra Allcock, head of campaigning at the Industrial Society, has concerns about this. "Even if employers are trying not to be prejudiced, it is well known within recruitment that first impressions are often the most influential factor."

So are today's employers guilty of discrimination? Of course they are. But if they can get away with claiming the jobs are part of the entertainment industry - in which it is acceptable to advertise or recruit based on a certain look - they remain legally in the clear.