Monthly Archives: July 2009

Lucy Kellaway is away. Dear Lucy will return in September.

I’ve been interviewing candidates for a research job and, thanks to the recession, have had a very good shortlist. The two frontrunners are both excellent – they seem bright and keen and hardworking. One is reasonably good-looking; the other is exceedingly plain – obese and with bad skin. The role is not client facing so looks should not matter. Yet I find myself inclined to hire the person who looks more prepossessing – which is unfair as the plain one surely needs a break. What should I do?
Manager, female, 38

Lucy’s answer

You should hire the fat and spotty one. This is not because you feel he (or she?) deserves a break – it isn’t your job to play the role of social engineer. It is because he is almost certainly better at the job than the one who is easier on the eye.

I know you claim that the two are equally skilled and industrious. If you weare right about this, then you should hire the looker as lookers are easier to have around. But I don’t think you are right.

If you read the research, it will tell you that beautiful people are more successful than ugly ones. They are paid up to 15 per cent more and that they advance more quickly. This might make one inclined to choose the cute one.

However, if you consider the reason for this discrepancy, the odds shift towards the fatty. Beauties outperform beasts mainly because we expect them to do so. If you show people pictures of job candidates, they rate the beautiful as more trustworthy, more intelligent and more diligent than the plain. Fat people score particularly badly. One US study had people rate the obese as awkward, lazy, uncooperative and unconscientious.

Lookist perceptions run so deep they even affect sport, where one might have thought performance would speak for itself. According to my colleague Simon Kuper’s new book about football, hunks get picked more often for top teams as scouts are impressed by players who look the part.

Thus, for your plain candidate to to have got so far suggests he is far better than the other one. You should hire him at once – indeed, I hope you did so weeks ago. The only reason for not doing so is if you feel the heavy, spotty one looks so dreadful that you physically shrink from him. Then mark yourself down and hire the looker.

I am the chairman of a UK company arranging a board visit to our operations in the US. Three of the non-executives are insisting on travelling club class, claiming that they will not be able to work otherwise. Ours is a strongly egalitarian company and it is our policy for all flights to be in economy. When the US team visits us, this is how they travel; I fear that if they discover different rules apply to the board they will be disillusioned. But if I force the non-execs into steerage I will be losing their goodwill. What should I do?
Chairman, male, 54

Lucy’s answer

The trouble is that you didn’t communicate your hair-shirt policy well enough to the board members when you hired them. Unless told otherwise, most non-execs of large companies expect to fly club class on long flights as a matter of course.

You should have said at the outset: if you think you’ll be swanking about on expenses at this company, forget it. It would have been up to them to decide whether they wanted to join the board under those conditions.

Now your communications job is going to be tricky whatever you do. You have a choice between making the rest of your staff angry when they discover the company is not quite as egalitarian as it pretends to be and making the non-execs feel cheated out of what they see as their due. The second is clearly the lesser of two evils. You aren’t trying to motivate the non-execs in the same way you are trying to motivate your managers. They are most unlikely to quit and are unlikely to sulk by failing to read their board papers properly, as the penalty for negligence is jail.

Alternatively, you could sidestep the issue by asking if it’s really necessary to cart the whole board across the Atlantic. I’m assuming it is, given that yours doesn’t sound the kind of outfit to tolerate waste. In which case, why not buy the board economy and let them pay for their own upgrades if they see fit. You could, if your budget stretches to it, buy them economy plus, which will save face and buy some leg room.

And if I were you, I’d make some political capital from the refusal to buy club for the board. Sir Richard Branson, a world leader when it comes to PR stunts, usually flies economy just to make a point. I don’t see why you shouldn’t get similar mileage out of the same stunt.

My wife is expecting our first child. Ten days before the expected delivery date, I am due to go on a business trip to Los Angeles with my boss. The trip is important to the company and it is an honour that I have been picked. If I say I can’t go, I expect my boss will be nice about it, but I fear it will mark my card as someone not serious about work and will also mean that a sly colleague (who is always trying to get one over on me) will go instead. I’ve no reason to think the baby will come early but, if it does, LA is an eight-hour flight away and if I miss the birth, my wife will never forgive me.
Manager, male, 29

Lucy’s answer

Most readers seem to think this is the easiest problem ever posed in this slot. There can be no contest, they say, between a business trip and a baby’s birth, and even asking the question makes you a monster.

I don’t see it like that. This is simply the first in a series of tricky decisions you will have to make balancing work and family – all of which will involve weighing up conflicting issues.

For a start, the baby will probably be late and so, if you go, you are unlikely to miss the birth. Second, even if you stay at home you may miss it by fainting, or fail to be any help and succeed only in annoying your wife.

On the other hand, I doubt if your boss would mark you down for staying at home: you have a copper-bottomed excuse that even the most child-unfriendly boss will accept. Even so, you may hurt your career by staying by your wife’ side as you’ll be missing out on an opportunity to shine and you’ll be giving your cocky rival an undeserved leg up.

What you finally decide, though, is not something I can help you with. It depends on what you and your wife want.

My own husband nearly missed the birth of three out of our four children: the first child for complicated reasons involving a broken-down car and a heavy night out; the second because the baby came quickly; and the fourth owing to a bothersome work deadline. Only with the third was he present throughout, and saw the birth as an opportunity to interview the young doctor about the new purchaser-provider split in the National Health Service.

The moment of birth is not the most special event in a child’s life. There are an infinite number of other special ones that follow.

Dear Lucy

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

Lucy Kellaway, FT columnist and associate editor, offers her solution to your workplace problems in a fortnightly column in the Financial Times. In this weekly online edition of her 'agony aunt' column, readers are invited to have a say too. Read more about Dear Lucy here.