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Question 109: May attractive people be preferred for certain jobs?

For some years, I have been involved in managing a large, successful, consistently top-rated restaurant. Our patrons can afford the best in food, wines, ambience, and service, and they expect nothing less. We seldom if ever disappoint them and charge accordingly. Now I have acquired the controlling interest and, while inclined to keep most things just as they are, I am considering certain changes. One concerns hiring standards. Many other businesses have similar problems, so your discussion of my question would be of wider interest than it might seem. The problem is where to draw the line between unfair and justifiable discrimination when setting the qualifications for waiters and waitresses.

Until now, nobody has been hired for these positions who has not matched a very tight image: white, male, above average in height, below average in weight, clean-cut, handsome, pleasant but dignified, articulate and well-spoken, imperturbable—and, of course, accurate, energetic, and dexterous. Since nobody hired has lacked extensive experience and good references, our waiters range in age from forty to sixty-five. Despite these hiring standards, we have not had any trouble keeping the place fully staffed with excellent waiters—the restaurant always draws high praise for service—partly because working conditions and benefits are much better here than in most restaurants, and partly because our waiters earn top dollar and enjoy an excellent esprit de corps that makes their work rather easy and pleasant.

Nevertheless, past policy on hiring plainly must change. Even if I wanted to continue hiring none but white males, such discrimination is illegal, and it is only due to happenstance that we have not already been compelled to hire women, blacks, orientals, and hispanics; besides, I consider discrimination on the basis of race, sex, and ethnic background grossly unjust, so that I have opposed it right along and would end it even if there were no outside pressure.

At the same time, several of the existing standards seem to me necessary for the good of the business and entirely justifiable as qualifications for the job. People who are not accurate, energetic, dexterous, and able to communicate clearly and easily should not be serving in any restaurant. In a restaurant of quality and style, I think it also is entirely reasonable to hire as waiters and waitresses only people with the right kind of personality. They must be pleasant but not overly friendly, with the attitude of a capable and self-respecting employee toward his or her employer; and they must not show the slightest impatience or irritation, no matter what a patron says or does.

What I am asking, then, is whether I am justified in continuing past standards in respect to other elements of the image—elements that could be summed up as immediate attractiveness. Here, too, it seems obvious that there is nothing wrong in employing only people who keep themselves neat, clean, and well groomed. And, I hasten to say, I do not mean sex appeal; all our waiters and waitresses will be clothed conservatively and modestly. But some people are handsome, beautiful, or, at least, nice looking, while others are less attractive: too fat, too short, with irregular features, bad skin, visible scars or birthmarks, poor teeth, and so on. Some people have pleasant voices, while others speak with a lisp, stutter, or rasp—unpleasant features they can do nothing about.

I have no doubt our customers would rather be served by attractive people, and it is likely that business will suffer if we do not maintain this standard. Because our payroll and expenses are high, our margin is not great. A fifteen percent decline in receipts would render the business unprofitable. Nevertheless, unattractive individuals also need jobs, and people in general probably should be more accepting of them. In short, is discrimination on the basis of attractiveness justified or not?


This question concerns the application of the Golden Rule. It would be unfair to favor applicants on the basis of attractiveness unless it is relevant to the job’s requirements. Whether it is fair to count among job requirements a potential employee’s effect on others’ feelings and reactions is the question. It does not seem unreasonable that the questioner’s patrons expect an esthetically pleasing ambience and the assurance of wholesome offerings, and attractive waiters and waitresses are better able to satisfy these expectations. So, it seems fair to take into account at least some elements of immediate personal attractiveness in hiring for this job. However, our culture’s standard for personal attractiveness seems in part unreasonable; moreover, patrons are likely to be satisfied with waiters and waitresses who are not attractive provided they are not more or less repellent. Therefore, the questioner should not exclude applicants who are neither attractive nor repellent, but may exclude applicants patrons would find repellent.

The reply could be along the following lines:

Someone might claim that employing otherwise well-qualified but unattractive people as waiters and waitresses would not adversely affect your profit. Possibly you should reconsider your contrary view, but since I know almost nothing about the restaurant business, I must take your word for the factual presuppositions of the problem you present. Accepting those presuppositions, I find your question interesting and well formulated. You insist on several qualifications that surely are reasonable for anyone to be a waiter or waitress, and exclude discrimination on the grounds of sex, race, and ethnicity. In this way, you clarify your question: Is it just to discriminate among applicants for this position on the basis of their immediate attractiveness?

Someone might argue that discrimination as such is unjust, and hold that every individual, sharing equally in human dignity, should be offered the same opportunity you now are going to make available to women, blacks, and members of various ethnic groups. But such an argument would be unsound. Employers reasonably discriminate by criteria relevant to applicants’ capacity to fulfill job requirements. Sex, race, and ethnicity are objectionable bases for discrimination in hiring people to serve in a restaurant such as yours312 because these characteristics either are irrelevant to an individual’s capacity to do the job or are relevant only in virtue of erroneous beliefs and unreasonable attitudes—on the part of managers, other employees, or patrons—which ought to change and cannot be taken fairly into account.

However, it seems reasonable to include as qualifications for serving in your restaurant certain other traits that, though they will not directly affect an employee’s performance, will affect patrons’ feelings.313 For instance, among the qualifications you include are several personality traits that seem to be reasonable requirements. With regard to potential employees’ immediate personal attractiveness, many other businesses, as you say, have problems similar to yours, since certain employees’ immediate personal attractiveness often greatly affects the first impression a business makes and, thereby, its effectiveness in marketing its products and/or services. That undoubtedly is why businesses hire attractive people to serve as receptionists, product demonstrators, and so on. When hiring for such positions, it seems to me, businesses fairly take immediate personal attractiveness into account. So, it seems legitimate to ask about the relevance that various elements of attractiveness have to the reasonable requirements of the job of waiters and waitresses in your restaurant.

Arguably, certain attributes, such as height and weight, which you regard as elements of attractiveness, can function like race and sex as grounds for unjust discrimination.314 I shall not take a position on the issue of the relevance of these and other elements of attractiveness for waiters and waitresses, but suggest that, in developing the new policy, you consider the elements one by one. I take it for granted you also will take into account any pertinent legislation or court decisions.

In reflecting on your question, two considerations must be set aside. The first is that, at least to some extent, attractiveness is in the eye of the beholder, and so is likely to be socially or culturally relative. While that may be so, you and most of your customers probably have similar tastes in this matter, so you can discriminate well enough among job applicants to exclude those who would be unattractive to your customers. The second is that the attractiveness or unattractiveness of job applicants no doubt often influences hiring decisions, even when it has little or no relevance to a business’s success; that influence is as rationally indefensible as it is widespread. But your question concerns intentionally using immediate attractiveness to patrons as a criterion for hiring those who will wait on them, and, what is more, you do offer a reason for doing so, namely, the likelihood that business will suffer otherwise.

In some respects, the impression receptionists and product demonstrators make in a very brief encounter can be even more vital to other businesses than the impression made by waiters and waitresses on restaurant patrons. Still, because many people have an emotional, visceral reaction of distaste toward unattractive individuals, the issue no doubt is in some ways more pressing for you, as manager of a restaurant, than for many other businesses that take immediate attractiveness into account. Patrons of expensive restaurants expect an esthetically pleasing ambience, and the appearance of any employee they encounter is important to their satisfaction. Moreover, while people with certain unattractive features—for example, some skin conditions—may be hale and hearty, they are likely to appear unhealthy, and that is likely to make customers uneasy about the wholesomeness of the restaurant’s offerings. Though these attitudes of your patrons are not based on reflective judgments, it is not clear to me that they are unreasonable, as racial prejudice, for instance, plainly is.

As I explained above, it would be unfair to take applicants’ immediate personal attractiveness into account if it were simply irrelevant to their job. But the preceding considerations suggest that, though unattractive individuals might be as able as attractive ones to provide service in other respects, they are not so able to satisfy certain expectations—which, though not based on reasons, are not entirely unreasonable—of patrons of expensive restaurants. Therefore, you will not be unfair, in my judgment, if you maintain some standard regarding the immediate impression made by applicants for the job of waiter or waitress.

However, especially in respect to women, our culture’s standards of personal attractiveness, it seems obvious to me, are confused with erotic appeal and irrational bias toward youth. Moreover, a mature person of pleasing personality who at first seems neither attractive nor repellent but who provides polished service through the course of a meal will by its end make a good impression on patrons, lend a distinctively personal note to their experience as a whole, and perhaps even enhance the esthetic impact of the restaurant’s decor, food, and so on—as a small irregularity enhances the beauty of someone whose features are otherwise perfect. Thus, I doubt that the good of the business requires choosing only those who are definitely attractive, while excluding not only the unattractive but those who, because they are no longer youthful or for other reasons, make no definite impression either way, and I therefore think it would be unfair to do so. It seems to me you may rightly exclude only those applicants whose unattractiveness is so marked that a significant number of your patrons would be likely to find them more or less repellent.

You rightly note that unattractive people also need jobs and people in general should be more accepting of them. Therefore, do not allow an applicant’s unattractiveness to prejudice other hiring decisions, when that quality will have little or no relevance to the success of your business. Indeed, it seems to me, employers who intentionally take immediate attractiveness into account in filling positions for which this quality contributes to the success of their business may, and perhaps should, compensate when filling other positions, including those that pay well, by preferring less attractive applicants, other things being equal. In this way, both the need to present an attractive face to the public and the need of unattractive people for work can be met, to the benefit of both groups and the detriment of neither.

Having responded to your specific question, I propose a more fundamental one on which I think you should reflect.

In a world where many people are starving or otherwise in dire need, a relatively small number of affluent people use a large part of the world’s goods. When measured by their own genuine human needs, furthermore, much of that use is self-destructive or, at least, wasteful; while much of the rest, though not wasteful, is crassly self-indulgent and unjust—or, at least, incompatible with Christian mercy—in view of others’ unmet needs (see LCL, 780–82, 789–92, 800–806, 811–14). Therefore, much consumption by the affluent is gravely sinful.

You describe your restaurant as an expensive one patronized by the affluent, who, very likely, spend a good deal there on luxurious foods and fine wines. In operating your business, you must promote and thereby intend that sort of consumption. Can you honestly judge that all of it, or at least enough of it to make your business profitable, is morally justifiable? If not, you intend what is unjustifiable, and you need to repent and change the character of your business so that it will provide a truly needed, and so legitimate, service.

312. I say “restaurant such as yours” to leave open the possibility that special characteristics of a restaurant or its clientele might provide rational ground for at least some discrimination that otherwise would be unjust.

313. Whether it is morally acceptable for those evaluating job applicants’ qualifications to take into account others’ reactions to attributes of individuals doing the job is a question of fairness. It must be answered in each sort of case by considering all the facts and applying the Golden Rule; there seems to be no plausible, simple, general norm to guide this judgment; see Alan Wertheimer, “Jobs, Qualifications, and Preferences,” Ethics, 94 (Oct. 1983): 99–112.

314. See Stephen M. Crow and Dinah Payne, “Affirmative Action for a Face Only a Mother Could Love?” Journal of Business Ethics, 11 (1992): 869–75; however, these authors fail to consider an argument like that proposed here defending the moral acceptability of preference on the basis of attractiveness.