You don’t have to look far to find society’s obsession with appearance. Daily, we are subjected to thousands of adverts promoting beautiful skin, ‘lose 5 pounds in a week!’ diets and clothes that will gain you admiration.
It would be nice to think this superficiality is devoid from the workplace. A joy to imagine we all hang our perceived appearance-related issues up with our coats each morning and settle down to work in an environment which promotes success, intellect and talent over physicality. But how can we when the weight of appearance-based hiring is so unfortunately prominent?
Katie Hopkins, best known for her stint on The Apprentice and her somewhat controversial commentary on everything from naming your children to boy bands, claimed she would never hire an obese candidate for her consultancy firm on the basis she solely seeks ‘energetic, professional and efficient’ candidates, traits she doesn’t believe anyone overweight can possess.
We asked our recruiting experts on their experience with overly critical employers and the obstacles they pose for the careers of their candidates.
Hakim Aoua from our office based in Paris has faced quite a few situations when employers requested particular looks from potential candidates. “If a client were to ask me this sort of question, I would firstly challenge them and find out the reason for the request. If the requirements are discriminating, I will not accept the project” says Hakim. However there are certain jobs which can require a particular physicality. “For example, if the client was looking for a sports person, such as a training coach, to fulfil particular performance goals then I’d look for someone who would physically be able to do the job”.
Hakim once had a client ask him to search for intelligent candidates who were also physically attractive. Hakim knew he could prove them wrong in this choice rather than immediately discussing this unreasonable request: “I ran the search and introduced them to three candidates. One of the top candidates was not considered ‘attractive’, but he was the smartest of the three and they took him on!”
It’s unsurprising to hear from Hakim that a lot of employers do not take into account employment law and HR. “I’ve had to remind some clients that they have to be careful with what they say and that they should look for specific skills as opposed to physical attributes” says Hakim.
“I once had a client refuse to hire a woman because they were concerned she would take maternity leave. I told them that I’d look for the best candidate for them and that the best candidate might be female”.
They refused to work with him.
“They called back a few weeks later and apologised and I told them that if I were to find them a female candidate I’d find someone skilled enough to transmit her skills to someone else if she were to take maternity leave”.
Hakim also dealt with an employer who asked him if he had met the candidate they had recently seen. When Hakim said that he had, they went on to say they thought the candidate ‘a bit strong’.
“I knew they meant overweight but I tried to play with the ‘strong’ angle. I told them: ‘Yes. He’s the one, the strongest candidate on the market and that’s the reason why I’m shortlisting him for the role”.
They didn’t hire him.
Tips for recruiters
Hakim’s advice for fellow recruiters who may face this sort of discrimination:
- Don’t lose your temper. Remain professional and positive in any situation. A good recruiter manages their client’s requirements.
- If discrimination is involved in a recruitment project with a client, you might take the job or you may not. It’s purely a matter of personal ethics. The price of this, of course, is that you could lose a project. However you will certainly keep a clean reputation and be respected by your clients.
- I know recruiters who would ‘sell their own mother’ to get a recruitment project. That’s not me. Taking on every request you get, regardless of your own ethics, will not make you the best recruiter on the marketplace.
Lee Narraway from Antal Warrington looks at this from a different angle. He acknowledges that it may, in some cases, be a candidate’s fault that they should miss out on an opportunity due to their appeal.
“You have one maybe two chances to impress so it’s vital that you show the best side you can. I have experienced a few situations in which candidates have arrived to be interviewed in inappropriate attire. One guy turned up wearing a Mickey Mouse tie. Whilst I like Mickey Mouse and such a tie shows you are light-hearted, there is a time and a place for it and an interview is not it”.
Lee once had to turn a candidate away who didn’t show up in appropriate attire. The candidate said his suit didn’t fit him when he tried it on that morning. “There is no excuse for not trying the suit on earlier in the week to see if it fits” believes Lee. “Even if you don’t look like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, at least present yourself in the best way you can. That’s all a recruiter can ask. I’ve had clients claim that candidates have turned up to be interviewed with greasy hair. Let’s face it, personal hygiene doesn’t cost a thing and it’s more than reasonable to expect people to turn up clean and smart and ready for the professional work environment” says Lee.
One of Lee’s clients demands to have fit personnel for a few of the roles Lee’s team covers for them. This is due to the very physical nature of the job, which involves climbing towers and getting in and out of small spaces.
“Looks shouldn’t play a part in the process, but the society we live in has pushed this agenda to the front. In some cases the brand is set up in this way, take Hollister for example: they require their staff to be slim and attractive and have a ‘beachy vibe’. One thing is for sure, I will not be selected for one of their models any time soon”.
Lee believes that, in some cases, it is okay to expect good looks, depending on the role they play, by the same token that it is okay to expect high intelligence.
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