If the face fits: do you have to look the part to get ahead?

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Beauty before brains is the name of the game in the image-conscious workplace of today, writes Emma Haughton. Research shows people respond more positively to someone they regard as good-looking, and to give their career prospects a fillip, high-flyers are queuing up to under the knife

Beauty has always been an asset, and never more so than today. British lovelies, Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell, now rank among the country's wealthiest people, having amassed several million pounds apiece on international catwalks and photoshoots.

Of course, supermodels are a tiny minority:most of us assume looks have no bearing on career success. Unfortunately, it seems we are wrong. Studies by US economists, Steve Hamermesh and Jeff Biddle, show that those rated above-average in attractiveness earn up to 24 per cent more than those deemed below average, despite similar qualifications and experience. A survey of 2,000 lawyers also found that the best-looking were more likely to be offered key promotions.

But surely beauty is in the eye of the beholder? Yes, but beholders have similar tastes, says Biddle, who asked people to rate other people's looks for his study. "We found that a high degree of consistency. If ten people look at the same person they will assign different ratings, but the same people end up above-average and below-average."

These assessments do, however, vary from culture to culture and over time. "In the US, for instance, very thin women are considered attractive in the Nineties; in the Fifties they would have been considered anaemic," he says.

Even so, research into cultural definitions of beauty has found certain constants - those with the most symmetrical faces are universally classed as beauties. But even in the ultra looks-conscious US, perfect symmetry is a scare resource: just 2 per cent of US citizens are considered strikingly handsome or beautiful, and 25-30 per cent above-average. The majority - 60 per cent - are deemed to be average, 15 per cent below-average, and an unfortunate 2 per cent euphemistically referred to as "homely".

So why should how we look affect our performance at work? Biddle offers various explanations: employers may be subconsciously or consciously discriminating in favour of the good-looking - in some areas, like sales or waitressing, they may be well aware that attractive people perform better. "It may be a cold, economic decision," says Biddle. "Research shows that people respond more positively to attractive people, and more negatively to those who are noticeably unattractive."

According to Eleri Sampson, an image consultant at Positive Images, the way we look accounts for over half the impact we make on meeting someone for the first time. "People do make judgments on physical characteristics; even interviewers trained to look beyond that, find that their initial gut reactions are still very powerful. Tall men, for instance, tend to be offered more jobs than short men."

Perhaps the people most at risk of creating a bad impression are the overweight. A survey of 30 recruitment consultants by the Institute of Personnel and Development found that the majority thought their clients would discriminate against fat people.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence, says the IPD, that suggests that the overweight are less likely to be recruited, and more likely to be laid off. One US survey in 1994 found that the heaviest 10 per cent of 16-year-old girls earned 7.4 per cent less than their peers. Cases abound in the US of obese employees being barred from their jobs, sent home to diet, or fined or sacked for being overweight, while recent UK tribunals suggest that disciplinary action against overweight people has increased.

Jonathan, a London barrister, is convinced his appearance works against him. "Legal work is 10 per cent brain power and 90 per cent image. Barristers are like professional actors - the more good-looking and distinguished they appear, the more credible and authoritative they seem."

"Unless you happen to be Danny DeVito or Bob Hoskins, there isn't much of a look-in for short, fat blokes like myself. Around my chambers there's a hierarchy which is as about as sophisticated as those Martini ads about `The Beautiful People'. There's the star players, `the beautiful people', and there's me, `the fatty'," he says.

But the bonus of good looks isn't simply a positive response from others; there is some evidence that attractive people may actually be more productive. Biddle's study separated those lawyers working for employers from those who were self-employed, and found that even among the self-employed, the attractive were doing better.

"This suggests it's not simply employer discrimination," he says. "If you are attractive from childhood, you probably develop better social skills. You may be more confident, assertive, and better at putting people at ease. That may make you a better employee."

Hardly surprising, then, that more people are citing their careers as justification for cosmetic surgery; what is startling is that the majority are men. Earlier this year the Wall Street Journal reported on New York facial surgeon Robert Guida's claim that he'd seen a six-fold increase in the number of male stockbrokers going under the knife during the current market boom. With nose jobs and liposuction on the neck, tummy and buttocks topping the list, he believes Wall Street whizz kids want to look like all-American boys in an effort to attract more clients.

Anthony Celentano, a 26-year-old broker at Joseph Stevens, a Wall Street investment firm had a nose operation last year to correct sinus problems and a "Roman-Italian" profile. "I do feel more comfortable now with the way I look," he says, "I've got more confidence and I'm more at ease, and I do think that if you feel good about yourself, you can act better and be better. Even if people can't see you, they can hear it in your voice. I'd say I work harder now and am more productive."

North American cosmetic surgeries are not slow to spot a bandwagon. According to the Canadian Institute for Cosmetic Surgery, a nationwide survey found that 84 per cent of men believe physical attractiveness is important for success and that 42 per cent feel improving one thing about their face would help their career.

Most people believe that their appearance has a direct impact on their career, says the Institute's Internet advert: "In today's extremely competitive business world, men wear their resumes on their faces. Being qualified isn't enough any more. Worn down, tired-looking executives who appear `over the hill' may get passed over for promotion and raises go to younger, healthier-looking colleagues."

And before you dismiss this as typical American wackiness, Mel Barber, chief executive of Hartley Medical Group, a London cosmetic surgery, confirms that more British men are requesting surgery to boost their careers. "Those who feel they look older than they should are becoming self-conscious about their appearance. They may be in a competitive job where they feel opportunities are passing them by for younger people in the office, so they decide to take a bit of action." He believes cosmetic surgery does help. "It lifts your confidence and self-esteem, so you act differently and exude a better aura. When you feel better about yourself, it spreads."

But Biddle is not convinced. Keep things in perspective, he advises: "If your choice is between college or spending the same amount on plastic surgery, your career will definitely benefit more from college. Good looks help, but in the end what really makes for career success is your intelligence, education, and how hard you work."

Next week: It's not what you say, it's the way that you say it: could the way that you sound be a barrier to achieving success?