Masks level playing field for hospitality workers

Couple and receptionist at counter in hotel wearing medical masks as precaution against virus. Couple on a business trip doing check-in at the hotel all wearing masks

PULLMAN, Wash. – While attractive hospitality workers typically earn higher customer service scores than their peers, wearing face masks – a practice widely adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic – levels the playing field, a new study says.

“People’s impressions of physical attractiveness are based mostly on facial features,” said Dogan Gursoy, Taco Bell Distinguished Professor in Hospitality Business Management at the WSU Carson College of Business. “When a mask covers the employee’s face, you don’t know if the person is average-looking or good-looking. It neutralizes the effect of appearance on customer satisfaction ratings.”

Gursoy coauthored the research published in International Journal of Hospitality Management with collaborators from two Chinese universities. In two separate surveys, the researchers found that attractive employees, when masked, received similar or slightly lower customer service ratings than their peers.

This study is among the first to investigate facemasks’ influence on hotel customers’ satisfaction rankings, which are important predictors for repeat visits, brand loyalty and hotels’ profitability, the researchers said.

Doctoral candidate Gang Wu at Southwestern University of Finance and Economics is the research’s lead author, and the other coauthor is Lifang Liang, a lecturer at Shanghai Business School.

Physical attractiveness plays a significant role in clients’ perceptions of customer service, and not only in the hospitality industry, Gursoy said.

“If you go to a retail store, a real estate office, or other service business, you’ll find that employee appearance impacts how clients rate interactions,” he said. “When people receive service from someone they consider more attractive than themselves, they tend to be more satisfied with the outcome – even though the bias is probably unintentional.”

To study the effect of facemasks, the researchers recruited 1,015 Chinese participants to take online surveys through a professional survey platform. In both studies, the participants were asked to imagine that they were staying at an upscale hotel and envision brief exchanges with front desk workers. Photos representing hypothetical employees were manipulated to show varying degrees of facial symmetry associated with physical attractiveness.

Average-looking workers were perceived as more attractive by survey respondents when they were wearing masks, and their customer service scores were also higher, according to the study results. However, wearing masks reduced both the perceived attractiveness of attractive female workers and their customer service ratings. When attractive male employees wore masks, perceptions of their attractiveness and their customer service scores were unchanged.

Overall, mask wearing by frontline hotel employees during the pandemic doesn’t appear to negatively impact customer satisfaction rankings, the researchers concluded. But since the surveys took place within a Chinese cultural context, they suggested that future studies investigate the topic within cross-cultural settings.

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