The Italian Jobs: …The beauty premium and the service experience


The 2003 Hollywood remake of the 1969 British movie, The Italian Job, was largely very successful, grossing over US$176 million in global box office sales. The plot of the movie is about a gang of thieves who attempt to go to Italy to steal millions of dollars’ worth of gold from some other criminals. It is a sign of the acceptance of the movie that rumours of a sequel titled “The Brazilian Job” has persisted more than a decade after the release.

It is quite interesting that a decade after the release of this movie, there was another fascinating release also involving Italy. This release was also about jobs. Italian jobs, to be exact. However, this release was not a movie about a heist. It was a research report.

The report was on a one-year study done between August 2011 to September 2012, but whose results came out in August 2013. Titled “Searching for A Job is a Beauty Contest”, the study sought to find out if attractiveness or beauty had an impact on employability.

To achieve this objective, the researchers came up with an ingenious plan. They created fake CVs and sent them to advertised job openings. The researchers ended up sending 11008 CVs to 1542 advertised job openings. A single CV got sent about eight times. Although the qualifications were kept constant, what the researchers did was to change the first name and surname on the CV as well as the address. They then went ahead to add photos of the applicants to some.

By those permutations, the researchers were able to determine whether the same qualifications went with an attractive male or an unattractive male, an attractive female or an unattractive female, a male foreigner or a male Italian and finally a female Italian or a female foreigner. By holding the qualifications constant, researchers were able to determine how the various changes affected the reaction of those responsible for hiring.

The results of the study threw up some interesting talking points, some expected, others not. For instance, it was revealed that there was some racial bias on the job market. The study showed that non-Italians were less likely to be called up for job interviews than Italians, even if the two individuals had identical qualifications.

However, what was more fascinating was that racial discrimination was not as important, when it comes to getting a chance at landing a job, as another factor—the attractiveness of the applicant. Regardless of the gender of the applicant, attractiveness was a good determinant for whether or not an applicant would be invited to come in for an interview. In fact, the study revealed that it was far better not to send a photograph with an application than to send an unattractive one. In short, contrary to whatever we might say, our reaction and attitudes towards each other is actually mediated by whether we find the one attractive or not.

This is what is referred to as the Beauty Premium.

It seems deep down in our collective sub-consciousness, we are hardwired to gravitate towards those we find attractive. Some have argued that this is because, as a species, one of our key objectives is to ensure our survival. One way to achieve this is keep reproducing after our kind. Therefore, according to this explanation, we are always on the lookout for those who can help us fulfil that desire. The interesting thing about this desire to reproduce, it is surmised, is that it lurks beneath our consciousness. In other words, we do not have to give it conscious thought for it to affect us.

If this is true, then it is possible that the Beauty Premium has been affecting us in ways that we might not be aware. One way this might be playing out is in our reactions when we interact with others. We like to think of ourselves as largely rational beings, with an ability to make decisions based on sound judgment. However, it seems this might not actually be the case. We might not be acting (and reacting) solely based on common-sense.

For instance, it has been claimed that jurors are mostly sympathetic to lawyers and even accused people they find attractive. This tendency is called the attractiveness-leniency bias. Dr. Robert D. Lytle of University of Arkansas at Little Rock released an interesting research report in 2015. Titled What is Beautiful is Innocent: The Effects of Defendant Physical Attractiveness and Strength of Evidence on Juror Decision-Making”, the study sought to determine if there was a way by which this tendency to favour attractive defendants can be eliminated. At the end of the study, Dr. Lytle concluded that that the attractiveness-leniency bias was not eliminated even when evidence against the defendant was strong and clear. In short, handsome or beautiful criminals might end up getting away with their crimes.

In business, there are a number of decisions that can be attributed to the Beauty Premium.  Prominent among these is the staffing of front office employees. It is generally accepted that many businesses place their most attractive employees at the front office to handle customers.

I recall an incident a couple of decades ago when a company that was looking for attendants to man its stand at a Trade Fair was lambasted left, right and centre. The offence? The ad in the papers specifically wanted only fair ladies. I recall the disgust that met this ad from many women in this country who thought it was an insult to the many beautiful dark-skinned ladies in the country. Evidently, those running that company believed beautiful ladies were only fair-skinned. They might have gotten it wrong with the complexion but they were acting under the directions of Beauty Premium.

Interestingly, the practice still continues, albeit under the radar. In these day and age, it would be suicidal for any business to attempt that stunt in the open. We might not be talking about it these days, but the truth is that the Beauty Premium is still at play when it comes to those who get to work in customer service. As a matter of fact, the entire customer service setup of many businesses is actually predicated on the Beauty Premium.

Beyond determining those who get the chance to serve customers, the Beauty Premium also affects the way customer service employees interact with customers. These interactions, which are the very heart of the universe of business, are coloured by the attractiveness of the customer. If one is to take anything from The Italian Jobs study, it is the possibility that customer service employees might be making decisions regarding customers based on the attractiveness or otherwise of the customer. This might sound like a joke but it is very possible.

Discrimination based on attractiveness is not something someone will openly own up to but as the aforementioned study infers, it is happening. Many front office staff would not want to admit it but their perceptions of what constitutes attractiveness determine those they open up to.

Anyone who has spent time working the front office knows that The Italian Jobs Experiment is more than a wonderful academic endeavour. There have been those times when one has favoured one customer above another customer based on their looks. Attractiveness can result in a front line employee giving one customer better and faster service than another customer. Attractiveness can be the difference between receiving a smile or getting a frown from a front line staff. Attractiveness can even cause a customer-facing employee bending the rules for one customer.

To manage this, it is important that customer-handling employee are, first and foremost, conscious of their potential to be bias towards those they find attractive. In my experience, it is when customer-facing employees let their guard down that they mostly get into trouble. Therefore, it is important that whenever the doors of the business opens for the day, customer-facing employees put themselves in a state of mind which fights out every kind of discrimination.

Discrimination by attractiveness becomes a problem when dealing with customers that you might not find attractive enough to warrant your fullest attention. This is because it is entirely possible that the “unattractive” customers might actually be the one whose business might turn around the fortunes of the company. Wealth does not normally the follow the Beauty Premium. If a customer-handling employee is not conscious of the Beauty Premium, he or she might end up messing the service experience for a really important customer.

It is important to note that the Beauty Premium can work in the reverse, i.e. it can also affect the way customers interact with those who are to serve them. In my days in the banking hall, there were many times when certain customers would prefer to be served only by particular. Actually, this is why many businesses would staff their front offices with only the most attractive people. They know customers would be more inclined to do business with those who are generally seen as attractive.

The ongoing discussion might not be easily digestible for many readers. Many might reject it on the basis that human beings are not as vain as the phenomenon of the Beauty Premium might suggest. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that we actually are. And the earlier we accept it, the better it is for us to manage it well. it is important for customer-facing employees to understand that they can make use of the Beauty Premium to their advantage. That is the beauty of the Beauty Premium.

Leave a Reply