Is Looking Good Good Business? How Facial Symmetry and Attractiveness Affects Career Progression

What does it mean to be good looking? Does facial symmetry have any effect on attractiveness? And does being ‘good looking’ affect how we’re perceived in the world of work? Is it different for men and women?

There’s a perception that good looking people get ahead in business. Dwight Schrute from comedy programme the US Office thinks so:

First rule in road-side beet sales: Put the most attractive beets on top. The ones that make you pull the car over and go, “Wow, I need this beet right now.” Those are the money beets.

Is he right? Do good looking people really get ahead in business? We need to determine what ‘good looking’ is to begin with.

What Makes a Face Attractive?

You’d think that beauty and attractiveness would be subjective. Single people are often asked what’s your type? by interested matchmakers and to quote former Arsenal Manager Arsene Wenger,

Everyone thinks they’ve got the prettiest wife at home

The thing is though, we by and large agree on what makes someone attractive.

Take Helen of Troy – the face that launched 1,000 ships. Clearly, enough men regarded her as beautiful to go to war over her for 10 years. Infants, who are unlikely to be influenced by beauty standards, tend to stare longer at faces that are rated as conventionally attractive and even across cultures, most people agree on the facial attractiveness of men and women.

There are even recorded neurological effects of looking at pictures that have been deemed attractive, where reward centres in the brain are stimulated by the visual delights on offer. We are hardwired to seek out beauty it seems.

The Qualities of Attractiveness

The ‘golden ratio’ is often quoted in facial attractiveness where faces that correspond to a common mathematical ratio found in nature are deemed better looking. The theory goes that as this ratio is commonly found in nature and subsequently, in art and design, we are hard-wired to prefer it.

But in Gillian Rhodes’ essay on The Evolutionary Psychology Of Facial Beauty, she argues that facial attractiveness is characterised by masculinity/femininity, averageness, and symmetry. 

Masculinity/femininity is a secondary sexual characteristic and reflects an individual’s health. Average faces are preferred because of our general preference for well-known rather than novel cues. Symmetrical faces also are perceived to be healthier.

Will it Get You Ahead at Work?

So it turns out that we are predisposed to both agree upon, and seek out, the beautiful amongst us and, according to this Harvard article on Why Beauty Matters, it turns out that there’s some evidence that being beautiful can help your career:

  • you’re more likely to get hired if you look well-groomed,
  • good-looking people make about 12% more money
  • attractive real-estate brokers bring in more money than their less attractive peers
  • attractive candidates are more likely to get elected
  • employers are prepared to offer 10.5% higher salaries to attractive people
  • this was repeated in interactions that only happened on the phone – you only need to sound attractive to negotiate more cash!
  • men are more likely to engage in unfair salary negotiations with attractive women

Being good looking evidently can help at work. But is this down to social interactions more than anything else?

Being Conventionally Good Looking Gives You Social Skills

Some research finds that being attractive leads to unconscious bias where those around you consider you to be more competent, particularly socially. This then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as you unconsciously leverage and improve these skills over time.

By the time good looking children become attractive adults, they’ve benefited from this bias for years, giving them higher levels of confidence. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“Physical attractiveness raises social and communication skills, which in return raise an employer’s estimate of the worker’s productivity,” researchers Mobius and Rosenblat write. “We assume that the employer is unaware of these biases and hence does not correct for them.”

This can compound over the course of a career – research shows that raising youngsters’ social skills is a better predictor of lifetime earnings than raising their intellectual ability.

Beautiful people are more sociable than everybody else – it might not even be true but we’re biased to think so.

But is Attractiveness Always an Advantage?

Like so much in life, this becomes a gendered question.

Michelle Miller, a private wealth manager at JP Morgan, wrote a book about the benefits of being a “seven-out-of-10” in business:

Unattractive women are either forgotten or ignored, and really hot women… are either treated like a liability or have all of their accomplishments diminished

Miller’s theory posits that the unattractive women fail to be promoted because of a ‘lack of client-facing skills’, while any Helen of Troys are bumped into roles where their intimidating beauty can be ‘contained’. It’s her assertion that being a 7/10 is a good thing when it comes business and there’s some evidence that this applies to men in C-suite level roles too.

In Conclusion:

Overall, it seems that while we’re all drawn to beauty in life and tend to agree on what it is when we see it, we don’t like to see too much of it at work.

Maybe it’s best to ignore looks in the workplace – if the Greeks had, they would have saved themselves a decade away from home fighting on foreign soil!