Are Sales Reps in Pharma Hired Solely for Their Sex Appeal?

It has been said that there is no such thing as a free lunch or an ugly drug rep. Anyone who has spent time in a doctor’s office—and who hasn’t watched hours of their valuable time ticking away while waiting to see their physicians—can certainly separate out who in the waiting room is there for medical reasons and who is there for sales purposes. You can almost always spot the drug reps by their good looks, their professional attire and their sample cases.

As an etiquette expert and someone who is constantly being invited to speak about the importance of dressing for success, I am probably more aware of personal appearance than most. I have long pondered not the “why” of hiring attractive individuals by pharmaceutical companies but the “how.”  How do they manage to find young people, most of whom appear to be fresh off the college campus, to hire, train and dispatch to hawk the company wares?

Having spent years in the for-profit and the non-profit world as a manager and administrator, I found it challenging to recruit anyone who knew how to present themselves in a polished professional manner. I wasn’t looking for drop-dead good-looking or head-turning beauty. I simply wanted to find people who could do the job, do it well, paid attention to their appearance and exhibited personality and polish. Education and experience were part of the mix as well. However, I learned long ago and a recent study by Harvard has proved it, that inter-personal skills will take you farther in life than education, expertise and experience. I have always trusted that pharmaceutical companies discovered this little known formula for hiring long before others.

When I began to train staff in medical manners, I found myself behind the scenes in physicians’ offices. It was then that I saw the other side of the drug reps’ world—the sales side. Lunch seemed to be provided every day of the week by an attractive sales rep from a different pharmaceutical company with no expense spared. Ah-ha, I connected the dots.

The pharma world seeks sales reps who can not only speak about the benefits of the products they are promoting, but who also have a certain appeal to the client they are facing. To clarify, I am speaking of physical attractiveness. Up until the last decade the majority of physicians were male so finding eye-catching female sales reps made sense. What doctor wouldn’t prefer to spend his precious extra moments with an attractive sales person vs. an unappealing one?

So here are the questions—is it legal? Is it ethical? Can a company or an industry hire men and women based on their looks? Can an organization reject interviewees who lack curb appeal? The simple answer is “yes.”

There is no question that employers cannot hire (or refuse to hire) on the basis of sex, race, age, disability and other protected characteristics. At the same time, there isn’t any question that employers may have and can enforce grooming and appearance codes. While an employer can’t hire exclusively on the basis of appearance, it can take appearance into account if it is a legitimate occupational qualification.

Every business large or small, every corporation, large or small, can use appropriate appearance as one of the criterion that a candidate needs to exhibit. Think of the cosmetic industry. Have you wondered where they find all those women with the porcelain skin and flawless features? It certainly is not by accident. If you question that fact, check out the sales people on the shoe side. I liken this difference in appearance and presentation to that of the automobile industry. The people who sell BMW and Mercedes-Benz have little in common in the looks department with the folks working the used car lots.

Every organization, regardless of the number of employees could and should have a clearly defined dress code policy. All employees should be made aware of the policy. Every HR department has the responsibility to enforce the policy, no matter how sticky the issue when talking to people about their appearance.

So what does this mean for pharmaceutical companies when hiring, training and supervising their sales staff? At the top of the list should be a requirement that every rep dress professionally. Their clothes should be fresh, neat, clean and pressed. The reps should be well-groomed, paying attention to hair, face and nails.

Do the pharmaceutical reps need to dress in formal business attire such as suit and tie for men and skirted suits or matching pants suits for women? The answer to that is, “Yes, no and maybe.” Business attire is based on four criteria: (1) the industry in which you work, (2) the job you have within the industry, (3) the geographical area in which you work and (4) what your client expects to see. The latter is the most important. If the physician dresses formally in suit and tie, the sales person should imitate that attire. If the physician dresses more casually, the rep can dress down as well as long as a professional appearance is presented. In short, imitate your client’s dress. Never go below it. When in doubt, dress one notch above.

It is no secret that people do business with people that they know, like and trust. The pharmaceutical industry is merely practicing good business by seeking those employees who can establish positive rapport and build meaningful relationships with their clients. Good looks aside, education and expertise are not to be discounted.