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Does your personality and how you look affect how you’re treated at work?

01 August 2013 Taylor & Francis

Is it a coincidence that the least attractive people in your office are the butt of all the jokes? A study just published in the journal Human Performance would suggest  that it’s not.

Brent A. Scott and Timothy A. Judge wanted to learn more about counterproductive work behaviour (CWB),  understood as “behavior intended to hurt the organization or other members of the organization”. In particular, they wanted to know what made certain employees a target of workplace abuse, aggression or anti-social activity.

The pair tested a model suggesting that being on the receiving end of CWB is related to an employee’s personality, his or her appearance, and negative emotions felt toward them by co-workers. Scott and Judge identified employee characteristics likely to encourage emotion  in their co-workers and to be associated (or not) with receiving abuse:  neuroticism (the tendency to experience negative emotions such as anger,  hostility  and anxiety), agreeableness (the tendency to be altruistic, warm and considerate), and physical  attractiveness (as rated by others).

The authors  discovered that disagreeable and physically unattractive employees received more abuse from their co-workers, and that co-workers felt more negatively about them, leading,  again, to abuse.

While it’s no surprise  that ‘neurotic’ co-workers might get a rougher  ride in the canteen  than the ‘agreeable’ ones, the notion of beauty  shielding workers from harmful  banter is more complicated. Scott and Judge refer to previous studies  for some explanations. They note that physically attractive people are judged by others as friendlier, more likeable,  and more socially  appealing than physically unattractive people;  they’re also treated better by others than unattractive individuals, even at work.

Emotions play a big part in predicting who might suffer abuse in the office, and beauty,  a “socially  desirable characteristic”, can certainly bring them out. As Scott and Judge explain,  “Attractive people may be aesthetically pleasant to others,  eliciting positive emotion, while unattractive people may be aesthetically unpleasant to others,  eliciting negative emotion.”

What do the results  of this Human Performance study mean for office politics?  Scott and Judge suggest  that if managers know who might become  targets of abuse,  it might help them to prevent  them becoming victims  in the first place, or to provide support  if they do.

As for the rest of us, “Although it is difficult  to alter one’s physical  attractiveness and, presumably, one’s level of agreeableness,” they write, “employees should realize that, whether  fair or unfair,  appearances and personality matter in the workplace.”

While you might’ve been told as a child that it’s “what’s  on the inside” that counts,  it’s now very clear that “what’s  on the outside”  counts  just as much, at least around the water cooler.

Attached files

  • Human Performance

  • Human Performance_Workplace Appearances_August 2013.pdf

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