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Looks matter in the workplace

By Laura Morsch

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( -- You know the woman -- the one who could wear a paper bag to a board meeting and still manage to look both beautiful and perfectly professional.

As if it weren't annoying enough that she maintains her obnoxiously flat abs by lifting doughnuts to her mouth, it turns out your gorgeous co-worker may also be out-earning her less genetically-blessed colleagues.

Good looks can have a real impact on workers' bank accounts, according to research by Daniel Hamermesh and Jeff Biddle published in the Journal of Labor Economics.

Attractive people earn about 5 percent more in hourly pay than their average-looking colleagues, who in turn earn 9 percent more per hour than the plainest-looking workers.

This means if an average-looking person earned $40,000, their prettiest co-workers would make $42,000 while their least attractive colleagues brought home just $36,400.

Plain-looking workers may also receive fewer promotions than those awarded to their more striking contemporaries.

Steven D. Spitz, D.M.D. and owner of cosmetic dentistry firm Smile Boston, said he once had a client who wanted his assistant to get veneers, and was even willing to pay for the dental work -- as long as the assistant asked for it.

"He said this was a woman who was really good at her job and he was moving up (within the organization), but he couldn't take her with him because her teeth were so bad," Spitz said.

The assistant never came in for the dental work, and Spitz said he didn't know what became of her career.

Are pretty people just more talented?

It remains uncertain whether the handsomest people translate their good looks into higher productivity, but students do consistently give better-looking professors higher evaluations than they give their less comely teachers, according to research by Hamermesh and Amy Parker at the University of Texas in Austin.

Still, many experts warn against assigning too much value to beauty in the workplace, arguing that even if your good looks do get you in the door, they may not get you much farther.

"A person can be breathtaking in person and destroy that within the first five minutes by acting in a way that seems superior or behaving in a way that is lewd or provocative," said Francie Dalton, President of Dalton Alliances Inc., a consulting practice providing executive coaching to C-level clients.

"Although I very firmly believe that looks are the first thing one notices, I am not convinced that looks trump things like competencies, interpersonal skills and other factors," she said.

Richard St. John, author of "Stupid, Ugly, Unlucky, and RICH," says he's so unconvinced of the connection between good looks and competence, he often chooses to hire the "visual underdog."

"I'm not saying looks won't help you be successful at getting a date," St. John said. "I'm saying looks won't help you be successful in other areas of life."

Unfair, but legal

Unlike religion, national origin or disability, discrimination based on looks is legal in most jurisdictions, said James McDonald, Jr., managing partner of the Irvine office of employment law firm Fisher & Phillips LLP.

Washington, D.C. and Santa Cruz, California, are two of the only municipalities with laws explicitly protecting workers against discrimination based on physical characteristics or personal appearance, he said. Still, that hasn't stopped workers from launching unsuccessful lawsuits.

Fortunately, there's -- literally -- more to attractiveness than meets the eye. Researchers Markus Mobius and Tanya Rosenblat found that confidence makes up 20 percent of perceived attractiveness.

To ensure the image you're portraying is a confident one, be sure your posture doesn't betray your nervousness. Keep your back straight, head high and make eye contact with your associates.

Laura Morsch is a writer for She researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues.

© Copyright 2007. All rights reserved. The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast or otherwise distributed without the prior written authority

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