You’re not ugly. You’re off-brand.

Some interesting reports surfaced last week about American Apparel’s unusual personnel selection practices. If reports have any merit, it would appear that the organization prefers to draw employees from the lofty ranks of the beautiful people and rejects applicants with mere mortal levels of physical attractiveness.

As might be expected, personnel selection largely on the basis of physical appearance offends the egalitarian sensibilities of many. It simply does not seem fair to hire employees on the basis of their good looks- a characteristic that is largely out of an individual’s control. Apparently applicant conformity to a very specific “look” is more important than their ability to sell mass-produced garments, deftly handle customer complaints, or even show up on time. I am under no illusion that I would be allowed to roam American Apparel’s apparently hallowed halls without a Hazmat suit (let’s I sprinkle my ugly all over their stuff), let alone sell a pair of their jeans (they do sell jeans, don’t they?), so I would normally be inclined to agree with this sentiment. However, since even the devil has a lawyer, I thought I would try to make the case that this selection “system” is not just evil for the sake of being evil. My arguments revolve largely around two considerations. Please read on; I am curious to see what my reader thinks (hi mom!). Heck, if I’m lucky, someone from American Apparel will read this and allow me to scrub their toilets for minimum wage (after store close, of course).

What a devil's advocate might look like.

The “Elitist Brand Management” defense:

So far as I understand, this is actually American Apparel’s primary justification. Employee directly engaging the trolls public are not just selling clothing. They are creating an image, a lifestyle. Since so much of American Apparel’s marketing strategy relies on creating an aspirational brand, it makes sense that their public-facing employees would be specifically selected for that capacity. In other words, American Apparel seems to be saying “why would you aspire to be like us, if we are just as ugly as you?” It’s not the most compelling reason to snub fatties, stoners, punks, scene kids, ravers, jocks, dweebs and dorks, but were I the chief executive of American Apparel’s marketing/sales division, I can totally see how this seems like a business necessity.

The “Everyone Else Does It” defense:

Thankfully, I have not actually heard any spokesperson try this one out. I can’t imagine it would improve their public relations situation. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that American Apparel is not alone in their appearance-based selection bias. Many other companies engage in just this type of practice, but no one has grilled them about it (at least not lately, or to any effect).  Mind you, I am not just talking about the usual suspects like Hooters or the ever-present Budweiser (substitute your choice of poison) girls. This type of selection practice is so wide-spread that we don’t even notice it; in fact it is accepted as normal.

For instance, visualize the last personal interview you endured. Did you show up in shorts, cut-off tee, jeans, or (my personal favorites) yoga pants? I suspect you did not. We tell ourselves that the selection agent’s preference for suits and ties are a matter of common sense, but let’s not lie to ourselves: These practices are also appearance-based selection. The difference here is not a matter of kind, but one of degree.

The same idea can be applied to organizations that “informally” reject applicants with visible tattoos and piercings. Of your company culture shuns facial hair for men (I’m looking at you, financial institutions), then you too are engaging in appearance-based selection. As a case in point, I once lost a job offer in part because the dress shirt under my suit was the wrong color. The corporate culture was so conservative that they only considered people that wore white or light blue dress shirts with a solid color tie.

The Verdict

Ugly is not a protected class. I am sorry, regular humans. As distasteful as it may be, American Apparel is not doing anything legally wrong (I’m ignoring reports that they only hire people of color for “the back”). Neither is it illegal to discriminate against people with tattoos, purple hair, an epic beard or subjectively “loud” neckwear. As to the question of morality, well that’s altogether more complicated. From at least one perspective, if we insist on “professional appearance” during interviews (or a dress code for job incumbents), we are allowing physical appearance to trump competencies and performance. No matter how much we appeal to the whole “common sense” idea, we are placing ourselves neatly inside a moral glass house.

Here’s my proposal then: Why don’t we stick to evaluating candidates with objective and valid selection tools (like nature intended)? Your selection decision will yield quantifiably better results. It’s not like we don’t have the techniques to accomplish this. A good job analysis, a few validated selection measures and a strategically aligned performance management system are all within the reach of most profitable companies. And if you don’t know anyone with the background to take care of that, I happen to know a guy that works for peanuts. I’ll even trim m beard for the interview.

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~ by George Guajardo on June 20, 2010.

2 Responses to “You’re not ugly. You’re off-brand.”

  1. I laughed out loud when I read “Ugly is not a protected class.” because that is word for word what I told my undergrads when we discussed the legality of selection systems just a week or two ago.

    The avenue for legal attack on this company, if one were to desire such a thing, would be to try to show that their standards of attractiveness for hiring are unequal on the basis of a protected class. I think it would be very difficult to prove, for example, that you were using the same standard of attractiveness in hiring both men and women. If your bar was higher for one group, that’s adverse impact.

    On the other hand, “the American way” is to let them do whatever they want and let the market sort them out. If consumers were all that outraged, they’d stop shopping there. If it helps their brand image more than it hurts, then they must be doing something right?

    • @Richard: I too used that line in a lecture on selection systems a few weeks ago. I think it has been bouncing around my brain looking for any excuse to be published.

      In terms of a legal attack, you make a very good point. A few years back I ran across some research suggesting that humans were predisposed to find lighter skin tones more attractive. I forget what the effect size was, so I am not sure if it would be sufficient to result in adverse impact, but it was statistically significant. Basically, people rating physical attractiveness of a person’s image were more likely to rate them as attractive if they were Caucasian (they controlled for rater ethnicity). If findings hold outside the lab then American Apparel and anyone else using face-to-face interviews may find themselves in a sticky situation.

      To be honest, I find it very difficult to dismiss their aspirational branding argument. If they change their selection practices, they risk changing their brand. Besides, this organization is not the only one selecting against the ugly, fat, or funny-looking; they just couldn’t keep it under wraps. I suspect the fickle tastes of American Youth will take care of this soon enough.

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