When you’re looking for a job, everyone has some bit of advice about what to wear, what to say, how to shake hands, and when to make a joke. Sometimes you should be yourself, but sometimes you should dress for the job you want; the situation is always fluid. Folksy wisdom has its place, but scientists have also been studying the problem of getting a job, and sometimes it’s nice to have some hard numbers to back up suspicions and assertions. If you want a leg up on the competition in the job search, knowledge is power. Here is what science says you need to know.
You already know this, but it’s still going to be hard read. If you want a job, your best bet is to be young, thin, and beautiful. (But not too beautiful, as we’ll see below.) That’s not my opinion or the opinion of the creepy guy leering at you from across the interview table. That’s science.
With respect to the first—young—a paper published last year in Psychological Bulletin, titled Age and Reemployment Success After Job Loss: An Integrative Model and Meta-Analysis, looks at “mechanisms by which chronological age affects job search and reemployment outcomes after job loss.” The upshot is this: for every year you age after 50, you are 2.6% less likely to find a job.
Is there hope? Yes. The study doesn’t say you won’t get a job, but rather, that it gets harder. You already knew that. Moreover, the the study cannot say with certain whether the numbers are so grim simply because many over-50s abandoned the job hunt all together. So keep on keeping on. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.
You can’t change your age. But what about your weight? Look, I’m not here to judge. I think you’re beautiful. Unfortunately for you, I’m a writer. I’ll never hire anybody (and if history is any guide, nobody will ever hire me). But according to science, hiring managers hire thin people. Is that wrong? Yes, but that’s what they’re doing. You can try to mount an impassioned defense of body positivity during the job interview, or you can hit the gym. If you’re already qualified for a job and want to move the needle, those are your choices.
To find out how companies might discriminate, a 2013 study published in the International Journal of Obesity presented to hiring managers resumes with photographs attached. Some photographs were of overweight people. Some photographs were of the same people, only much slimmer after having undergone bariatric surgery. The results will not surprise you: down the line, the skinny version of the same person with the same resume received higher marks.
The thing about the job search is that it often becomes necessary without warning. If weight loss were easy, and you were so inclined, you’d have already done it. So what can you do in the cold face of human prejudice? It’s not clear-cut. Weight is not a protected class under federal discrimination laws. (Morbid obesity is protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, however.) It’s illegal in Michigan and in a handful of cities, but that is cold comfort when you live in Alabama.
BE BEAUTIFUL (BUT NOT TOO BEAUTIFUL)
If you want the job, it helps to be conventionally attractive. Again, that’s not me; that’s what research suggests. Call it the “what is beautiful is good” effect. Employers are more likely to hire candidates who are pleasing to the eye regardless of whether the position has high public visibility. Even the drudge in the basement, it seems, has Disney eyes and perfect white teeth.
There is an exception to this. You don’t always want to be too beautiful. A major study in 1979 posited the “beauty is beastly” effect, in which physical beauty is an asset when you’re seeing a job, but a hinderance if you are a woman seeking a managerial position or a traditionally male job. In other words, Miss America would have a hard time getting a job repaving roads, or leading the highway improvement program. Is that unfair. Yes. Is that what science says? Yes.
Here’s a rare bit of good news, though even the scientists conducting this study couldn’t believe the results. In a 2016 report, researchers submitted to online job postings nearly 9,000 resumes with names designed to suggest race and gender. The result, according to the University of Missouri, which led the study: “little evidence of employer preference for applicants’ race or gender in the early stages of the hiring process.” The resume attempted to control for socioeconomic status and age (i.e., no Lindsey-Olivia Rothschild type names, nor any Ethels or Mildreds).
It would “be crazy,” according to the study lead, to take from the study the idea that racial bias is a problem of the past. Still, it is a tiny glimmer of hope in a pool of otherwise grim data.
So managers aren’t hiring the old, unattractive, or out of shape. They’re not always discriminating by race or gender. But who are they actively hiring? According to a 2012 study published in American Sociological Review, managers are hiring people they want to be friends with. Really! As one participant told the study lead, “You know, you will see more of your co-workers than your wife, your kids, your friends, and even your family. So you can be the smartest guy ever, but I don’t care. I need to be comfortable working everyday with you, then getting stuck in an airport with you, and then going for a beer after. You need chemistry.”
As reported elsewhere, job interviews in general are a bad way of determining a candidate’s fit for a job, and the people who do the hiring vastly overestimate their abilities to find just the right candidate while underestimating personal biases. As long as they retain their iron grip on the hiring process, the job-seeker’s only choice is to play by the rules. Maybe the homespun wisdom is right. Give them a confident handshake, woo them, and be yourself. Once you get the job, even if it turns out you hate them, at least you’ll be drunk, and have a company to pick up the bar tab.