It’s true. The office IS just like high school.

(istockphoto) A not-so-pretty result: New research links unattractiveness and cruelty in the workplace.
(istockphoto) A not-so-pretty result: New research links unattractiveness and cruelty in the workplace.

Research has taught us that being taller can lead to better job prospects. It has shown us that baldness can confer greater leadership potential. And yes, it has even told us that wearing makeup can boost perceptions of a woman's competence.

Now, business school researchers report that what you've always sensed is true: the workplace isn't much more hospitable to unattractive people than high school. In a study published in the journal Human Performance, professors from Michigan State University and the University of Notre Dame found that people who are considered unattractive are more likely to be hassled or tormented by their colleagues than those peers who are considered better-looking. The study claims to be the first to link attractiveness with cruelty in the workplace.

The researchers queried 114 workers at a U.S. health care facility, asking them how often they were the recipient of what they politely refer to as "counterproductive work behavior," or rudeness, disparaging comments, or ridicule. These surveys were compared with how each study participant judged his or her attractiveness on a scale of one to five by people who didn't know them.

Unsurprisingly--unless you have more confidence in the maturity of the workplace than most of us--the unattractive workers were on the receiving end of harsher treatment. That could lead not only to poor treatment, says Brent Scott, the study's lead author, but to greater stress, a sense of exclusion, or job dissatisfaction that could prompt someone to leave the company. And "if they stay," Scott said in an e-mail, "they're less likely than attractive people to rise up the ranks. I'm not suggesting that it all begins with bullying from coworkers, but that bullying certainly doesn't help matters when it comes to career success."

What should managers do to prevent such childishness? Scott says that because there's been a lot of research on how attractive people get higher performance ratings, managers "should be aware not only of the harm that might be done to unattractive people, but also the extra help that might be done to attractive people." And in a summary of the findings, the researchers advise that knowing who might be targets will help managers "monitor susceptible employees to prevent them from becoming victims" and "provide counseling and social support."

Or how about something much simpler: Why not just try and don't hire or get rid of those people who decide to be rude or disparaging to anyone--whatever they may look like? There's really no place for jerks in any well-functioning workplace.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

What a boss sounds like

Do jerks make better leaders?

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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Jena McGregor | June 20, 2013