What does it take to get ahead at work? All you need to do is be competent, work hard and get along with others—at least, that’s what we’d like to tell you. But decades of research shows that it also helps to be physically attractive.
On average, good-looking people earn higher pay, receive higher performance evaluations, and have a better chance of being promoted. To our chagrin, even better-looking professors get higher teaching evaluations. Particularly dismaying is the evidence that more attractive candidates are more likely to be hired in the first place, meaning that this trend starts even before people have a chance to prove themselves on the job.
Some of this is due to pure bias. Past studies show that if you send out identical resumes to different employers with photos of more versus less attractive individuals attached, the pretty people are more likely to get callbacks. But as management researchers, we also wondered if attractive people do something different in work-related social settings that boosts their advantage. Our curiosity is based on previous research that has found attractive people have both more and more positive social interactions than others. Over years of these experiences, might good-looking individuals gain more confidence in social settings and develop better self-presentation skills that could help account for their success in job interviews? And if so, if less attractive people could learn those same skills, could that help level the playing field?
To answer these questions, we conducted a small study. We asked 176 undergraduate and graduate students who were gearing up to apply for internships and jobs to practice their interview skills by creating a video explaining why they were the right person for a (fictitious) desirable leadership development opportunity in a major company. They made a three-minute elevator pitch in our recording rooms, introducing themselves and their qualifications for the job, similar to the brief video-recorded interview Q&As many companies use as an initial step in the hiring process.
Seven independent observers rated all the videos for attractiveness and another five provided ratings for nonverbal presence. In addition, we had 21 managers with hiring experience rate how interested they would be in hiring each applicant. We also asked participants themselves how powerful they felt and how confident they were in their ability to influence others before they recorded their video pitch.
The bad news first: Attractive people actually did present themselves in a more confident and enthusiastic way than their less attractive counterparts, leading managers to rate them as more hirable. They even felt more powerful, and it was this sense of power that seemed to drive their more effective nonverbal communication.
Armed with this data, we set about to see if increasing applicants’ sense of power—regardless of whether they were attractive or not—would result in improved communication during the elevator pitch video. We decided to use a power-posing intervention, based on the research by Amy Cuddy and colleagues. Power posing involves standing like a superhero, with your feet shoulder-width apart, hands on your hips, chest out, and chin up. Holding this posture is designed to make you feel more powerful before stressful experiences like interviews.
It’s worth noting that this research has drawn criticism, especially since subsequent studies have not replicated early findings that power posing can produce hormonal changes, and the debate is ongoing. However, our study relies on an aspect of power posing research that has held up much better. That power posing enhances subjective feelings of power. And to make sure we didn’t get results just because people familiar with power posing believed it would help them, we included only participants who weren’t aware of power posing or Cuddy’s TED Talk.
As our research participants—a new batch of 124 students—prepared their elevator pitches for the fictitious leadership development opportunity, we randomly assigned half of them to power pose as they prepared their pitch. Those not assigned to the power-posing condition prepared for the interview in their own way, as in our first study. After five minutes of prep time, participants in both conditions recorded their pitch normally without holding any poses. Once again, the videos were rated by 12 hiring managers for hireability, four by independent observers for attractiveness, and another four observers for nonverbal presentation.
Now for the good news: In our second study, less attractive participants who practiced power posing exhibited the same skill in nonverbal communication as more attractive participants naturally did, thereby closing the gap between the two groups. There was no longer a difference in more and less attractive applicants’ nonverbal presence. Observers perceived them as equally confident, enthusiastic, captivating, and poised. As a result, attractiveness no longer had an effect on managers’ hireability ratings. And power posing worked for both men and women.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that power posing is the solution for attractiveness bias in interviews, let alone in the workplace. We as a society have lots of work to do to ensure that people are consistently evaluated based on the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed for their jobs.
But in the meantime, our study does offer a little hope for those of us who aren’t blessed with striking looks. If you’re a job seeker looking for a way to feel more powerful and present yourself more confidently in your next interview, trying this simple trick might give you the edge you need to get the job.
Min-Hsuan Tu is an assistant professor of organization and human resource management at the University at Buffalo School of Management. Elisabeth Gilbert is an assistant professor of business administration in the Williams School of Commerce, Economics, and Politics at Washington and Lee University. Joyce Bono is the W.A. McGriff III professor in the Warrington College of Business at the University of Florida.