Shortly after I became a chief audit executive, a member of my team identified a fraud in the organization. We all knew the suspect, and there was a lot of conversation in the office about what had been found. I remember someone saying, “I would have never suspected him! He doesn’t look like someone who would break the law.” That comment greatly annoyed me, and I called out the person, reminding them that we must be objective in our work. Appearance should never influence us.
I often wondered if judging the honesty of people based simply on appearance was a widespread problem in our profession. Then, several years ago, researchers at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany released findings from a study that looked at that very subject – whether internal auditors are swayed by the attractiveness of their audit subjects. More specifically, the study looked at internal auditors’ susceptibility to “the beauty bias” in fraud-risk judgements.
The study found that experience and motivation “immunize” most internal auditors to attractiveness stereotyping and the attractiveness halo effect. The theory of attractiveness stereotyping in psychology stems from studies that have found that Western people are more willing to listen to and believe someone who is aesthetically attractive. The halo effect is a type of confirmation bias: Positive feelings in one area cause ambiguous or neutral traits to be viewed positively. The effect has been studied in relation to attractiveness, as well.
Two things immediately came to mind as I read about this study: I was reassured by the findings. I was surprised that researchers took the time to study such a topic.
It was good to be reassured that the objectivity of the profession was intact, and it was good for the profession if media coverage of such research got the attention of our stakeholders. However, as I have written over the past few months, we can do much more to bolster our credibility with an organization’s stakeholders by how we do our jobs and how we interact with our clients.
CAEs can show their credibility by running an effective internal audit function, walking the talk, keeping confidences, leading with integrity, and investing the time and energy to build strong relationships with audit committee chairs and key C-suite executives.
Conforming to The IIA’s International Standards for the Professional Practice of Internal Auditing, including establishing a quality assurance and improvement program and submitting to timely quality assurance reviews, also gives stakeholders clear indications that the internal audit function is constantly striving to improve.
Regular readers of this blog know I have written three books on the profession, The Speed of Risk: Lessons Learned on the Audit Trail, Trusted Advisors: Key Attributes of Outstanding Internal Auditors, and Agents of Change: Internal Auditors in an Era of Disruption. A quick check finds almost 50 references to “credibility” in those three volumes. As I noted when I first wrote about this study in 2017: It is more valuable to build credibility with our stakeholders through our actions than to point to a study that concludes internal auditors are more focused on root causes than someone’s root colors.
Regardless of what research showed about “beauty bias” by internal auditors, it remains a major injustice in the overall workplace. A 2021 Forbes article noted:
“Attractive people have an advantage in the job search and advancing in their careers. We talk about all types of biases, but largely ignore the fact that decisions are made based upon how someone looks. While deep down, we all kind of know that this is sort of true, a new University of Buffalo study confirms this inconvenient and uncomfortable fact.
Separately, a Harvard study previously confirmed,“Workers of above average beauty earn about 10 to 15% more than workers of below-average beauty. The size of this beauty premium is economically significant and comparable to the race and gender gaps in the U.S. labor market.” For example, you tend to see generally tall men as CEOs of major corporations and winning presidential candidates.
The findings of the UB study show, “Attractive people are more likely to get hired, receive better evaluations and get paid more.” The results indicate that there is something called a “beauty premium” that exists across professions. “
So, before we pat ourselves on the back over a study that did not find “beauty bias” affecting our work, we should examine whether it influences any other aspect of our lives. And, we should be champions in our organizations for treating everyone with respect and fairness – regardless of how they look.
This post has strayed a bit from the research study on beauty bias, but we must always remain vigilant when it comes to objectivity. As retired American journalist Tom Brokaw once observed, Bias, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder. Facts are your firewall against bias. Practitioners at all levels must understand that remaining objective builds credibility and provides the best opportunity for internal audit to showcase its value to the organization. For internal auditors, beauty should always reside in the truth — not in those we audit!
As always, I look forward to your comments.