How people are perceived by others has important implications in all areas of life, not least in the workplace. A recent novel study examined the effects on managerial pay of perceived physical attractiveness, trustworthiness and dominance as perceived through facial cues. The strength of all three of these facial cue types were found to be positively associated with greater managerial pay, but attractiveness was found to be a more important factor in mid-level than senior managerial pay, while perceived trustworthiness and dominance were more important in determining senior management pay.
Key Topics: Management; Face perception; Attractiveness; Dominance; Trustworthiness; Compensation
Title of Reviewed Article: Perceptions of facial dominance, trustworthiness and attractiveness predict managerial pay awards in experimental tasks
Researchers: Laura S. Fruhen (University of Western Australia), Christopher D. Watkins (Abertay University), and Benedict C. Jones (University of Glasgow).
Publication: The Leadership Quarterly, 2015, Vol. 26 No. 6, p.p. 1005–1016.
Setting the Scene
While there is a continued drive towards the equitable treatment of people in the workplace, research on social judgements demonstrates that stereotypical judgements of people, which are often subconscious and at times irrational, are ubiquitous (Todorov el al., 2005; Wheeler & Petty, 2001), and judgements based on physical appearance can influence various important social outcomes (e.g. Langlois et al., 2000). Height (Blaker et al., 2013) and maleness (Koenig et al., 2011) for example have been shown to be positively related to perceived leadership competency and higher pay. Recent research has also indicated that CEOs of successful companies have more ‘robust’ facial features, based on a higher facial width to height ratio (Wong, Ormiston, & Haselhuhn, 2011).
Perceived attractiveness, trustworthiness (level of perceived intent to inflict harm) and dominance (level of perceived ability to inflict harm) are three of the key dimensions on which people judge faces (Oosterhof & Todorov, 2008). People perceived as dominant are more likely to be thought of as powerful, opportunistic, and less inhibited than less dominant people (Keltner, Gruenfeld, & Anderson, 2003), and research suggests this is a trait most valuable in senior positions (Tengblad, 2006).
Trustworthiness has been shown to be associated with perceived ability and integrity in the workplace (Colquitt, Scott, & LePine, 2007), and trust in leaders can drive the performance of those they lead (e.g. Braun et al., 2013). Attractiveness on the other hand, has been found to be positively associated with greater monetary rewards of employees (e.g. Judge et al., 2009) and perceptions of leadership competence (Surawski & Ossoff, 2006), although some research suggests that the importance of attractiveness diminishes for more senior jobs (Re & Perrett, 2014).
This study proposed a number of research questions:
Hypothesis 1 – “Facial attributes (dominance, trustworthiness and attractiveness) will be positively related to managerial pay.”
Hypothesis 2a – “Dominance and trustworthiness will be more influential on payment decisions for top level positions than shop floor level positions.”
Hypothesis 2b – “Attractiveness will be more influential on payment decisions for shop floor level positions than top level positions.”
How the research was conducted
1,214 participants, sourced from various social networking websites, evaluated the pay of hypothetical mid-level manager (Retail Manager) and senior managers (Head of Retail Operations).
Participants were shown facial images of Caucasian individuals and asked to allocate salary on a specified pay scale based on the extent to which they perceived individuals in the images to be suitable for the job, based on appearance. Attractiveness, dominance and trustworthiness were not defined to participants, nor were they instructed to pay attention to particular features of the facial imagines. All facial images had been independently assessed previously for levels of attractiveness, dominance and trustworthiness.
Key Research Findings
All three facial attributes were found to be significantly related to salary size for both of the managerial level jobs examined, and as such Hypothesis 1 was supported.
Attractiveness was the most significant of the three attributes in determining mid-level managers’ pay, while trustworthiness and dominance were the most significant determinants of senior manager pay and more important factors than attractiveness. These results support Hypotheses 2a and 2b.
In addition to the facial attributes, gender was found to be significantly related to the awarded pay for both levels of management, with women being awarded higher pay at both levels. The link between the three facial attributes and higher pay was also stronger for women.
The findings were consistent with the study hypotheses, with attractiveness, dominance and trustworthiness all positively related to managerial pay, which is also consistent with research relating to the belief that appearance can be indicative of character (Todorov et al., 2008). However, the relationship between pay and these facial attributes differed depending on the level of the job. Attractiveness was more significant for pay determination at mid-management level, while trustworthiness and dominance played a greater role in the determination of senior management pay, which is likely to be a reflection of the beliefs people hold regarding the characteristics that make an effective leader (Offermann et al., 1994; Tengblad, 2006).
Interestingly and contrary to expectation, women were awarded higher pay at both management levels, which the researchers suggest indicates that at the very least gender gap issues are not the result of facial biases, which is consistent with related research which points to factors such as job characteristics and workplace environments as primary gender pay gap determinants (Rubery, Grimshaw, & Figueiredo, 2005). On the other hand, the finding that facial cues play a greater role in pay determination for women, albeit positively, suggests that there is greater emphasis on appearance for women’s pay determination.
Organizational and Reward Implications
This study takes facial cues in isolation, and so focuses on one factor amongst a myriad of factors in pay determination, as such it is difficult to generalize the results to the workplace setting. The results do however point to the universality of biases in human decision making, and how superficial physical cues can impact on the career and pay of individuals, as prior research has suggested (e.g. Johnson et al., 2013).
An initial practical application of this study, therefore, is for companies to simply enhance their awareness and understanding of ways in which people may be biased in decision making based on appearance (e.g. Little and Roberts, 2012). In light of this companies should endeavor to create robust objective processes in relation to pay decisions. For example, performance evaluations, on which pay decisions are made, should focus on measurable and/or observable behavior.
This study builds on prior research which demonstrated the importance of facial cues in decision making, and further highlights potential implications in relation to pay decisions in the workplace. As the results are based on an experimental study design, caution should be exercised in determining practical applications, although they do allow us to consider some broad practical implications. Further research would benefit from examining these facial cues directly in an organizational context and how factors such as company culture and sector might influence results.
Source Article: Fruhen, L. S., Watkins, C. D., & Jones, B. C. (2015). Perceptions of facial dominance, trustworthiness and attractiveness predict managerial pay awards in experimental tasks. The Leadership Quarterly, 26(6), 1005-1016.
Published by: Elsevier Inc.
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