Résumés in the U.S. and UK rarely include photos, so it might be tempting to think that you can gain an edge by including a picture of yourself the next time you apply for a job. You’d certainly stand out from the crowd, and with personal boundaries getting fuzzier and everyone’s pictures on Facebook anyway, what’s the harm of showing an employer what you look like?
The truth is, you could be hurting your chances as well as contributing to a bigger problem: allowing bias to creep into companies’ hiring processes.
CV photos, a digital-age phenomenon, are already required in China, and they’re commonplace in much of Europe. They’re catching on in Turkey, Israel, and elsewhere. Though they’re still scarce in the United States, Australia, and the UK, the unspoken taboo in these countries appears to be loosening.
What few people stop to consider is who might be on the receiving end of a résumé and how that person’s unconscious prejudices might make all the difference.
Human resources departments, in the West at least, are staffed predominantly by women, many of whom are young and single. In a study of responses to CV photos, Ze’ev Shtudiner of Ariel University centre and I found a strong bias among these screeners against attractive women. (The study was conducted in Israel, where CV pictures are optional.)
In companies that advertised job openings, good-looking females (as judged by a panel we assembled) received 6% fewer callbacks than plain-looking females and 23% fewer than women without pictures. The beauty “penalty” was much smaller and less significant when it came to employment agencies, perhaps because the women screening CVs wouldn’t have had to work side-by-side with the candidates.
In both the hiring companies and the agencies, screeners reacted favourably to pictures of attractive-looking men, giving these candidates significantly more callbacks than plain-looking men and males who didn’t attach photos. This male beauty premium did not come as a surprise in light of the large body of psychological research showing that attractive people are generally viewed positively along numerous dimensions. They’re believed to be happier, healthier, more intelligent, luckier in marriage, and so on. Thus the responses to the CV photos of attractive women really stand out and tell us a lot about the screeners’ biases.
When you’re trying to decide whether to attach that photo, another point to consider is that if you’re a woman in a country where CV pictures are rare, you face a bigger penalty for being the nonconformist. Across both hiring companies and employment agencies in Israel, where just 15% to 20% of applicants typically include photos, 43% of respondents in a post-experiment telephone survey expressed positive associations with males who included photos, while only 16% reacted negatively. But we saw the opposite effect with women’s photos: Only 12% of the respondents reacted positively, and 34% expressed negative sentiments. Women who include their pictures are seen as trying too hard to market themselves, or are considered to be less serious than other candidates.
What Ze’ev and I found is a clear distortion in the market for talent. In countries where CV photos are common, screeners routinely eliminate qualified applicants without giving them a chance to make their case in person. In countries where pictures are rare, a photo can skew the selection process even more seriously.
One implication of our research is that companies may be doing themselves a disservice by allowing their HR departments and hiring committees to remain predominantly female. Creating a more balanced gender mix might reduce the level of bias against female candidates whose only failing is that they’re physically attractive.
If this were a perfect world, attaching a photo to your CV would do nothing more than allow a prospective employer to put a face to your name. But in the real world, providing your image unleashes beauty discrimination at the earliest stages of the hiring process.
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