Plastic surgery as a career move may seem extreme, but more and more professionals are going under the knife to get the edge at work. Rachel Pask reports

Raw ambition and talent used to be the qualities that helped a person soar up the career ladder, but now it seems a quick nip/tuck could be the fastest route to the top. And if you're already there, it could be the thing that helps you to stay on top. Victor Alexander, a 51-year-old - a highly successful - property developer, discovered bright, fresh faced graduates were nipping at his heels.

"In times past, maturity was respected, but today you have young lads pushing and shoving and trying to get you out of the business. In the property world we're all sharks and the bigger sharks eat the smaller sharks, that's the nature of the industry. As you get older you're not as quick on the deals and in my late forties I started to feel my sell-by-date approaching. To keep in the running, I had surgery on my upper and lower eyelids. It wasn't because I wanted to regain my youth, I just didn't want to look like I'd been out drinking the night before."

Eighteen months ago, Victor went to see Harley Street surgeon Laurence Kirwan and paid £4,900 to have an upper and lower blepharoplasty (eyelid surgery). He was back in the office one day after the operation, without any visible bruising. Within a week the heavy, tired look he had hated for years had vanished. In its place, came a new zest for business.

"Age is my biggest enemy and plastic surgery has given me an extension of my business life. My clients like to deal with young, clever, smart people. It might be different in insurance where you want someone who looks mature, but in property people need to believe that you are sharp enough to handle their multimillion-pound deals." Victor has since had three Botox injections in his forehead, and plans to have another later this month.

Victor's story certainly isn't unique. Dr Georges Roman from the Devonshire Medical Chambers says at least 40 per cent of his patients request anti-ageing treatments to enhance their careers. "I first noticed this trend when I worked in LA, and in the last three years I've seen it spread to the UK. The American emphasis on looking good and vibrant in the workplace has definitely affected England."

Today, more than a quarter of female executives and almost one in five male directors would consider cosmetic surgery to improve their career prospects, according to a survey carried out by The Aziz Corporation, the UK's leading independent executive communications consultancy.

The results revealed that 26 per cent of women would consider a facelift and 28 per cent would consider Botox treatments if they thought it would boost their chances in the workplace. And 15 per cent of men would contemplate a face lift and 11 per cent would have Botox treatments to improve their business prospects. "Some of the treatments may be extreme," says Professor Khalid Aziz, chairman of The Aziz Corporation, "but there is clearly a growing recognition of how important appearance is to success in business today."

Surgery might not come cheap, but it is a proven economic reality that good looks equal higher salaries. A survey conducted by London Guildhall University found that "plain" men earned 15 per cent less than attractive men, while plain women earned 11 per cent less. The penalty for being overweight was earning about 5 per cent less.

Heather Waring, a career development strategist, isn't surprised by these figures. "Of course our looks do not affect the way we do our job, but in reality our appearance can affect how we progress in a career. At interview stage, employers make decisions about a person within the first 60 seconds of meeting them.."

This may explain why so many workers feel the need to go under the knife. "I've operated on teachers who want to become headmasters and solicitors who use surgery as a means of demonstrating their success," says consultant plastic surgeon Dr Judy Evans from the Nuffield Hospital in Plymouth. In Dr Evans' experience, career-related surgery is popular across the board. "Recently I operated on two men in the building trade who ran their own businesses. This trend has hit every industry, from academia and politics through to recruitment. My patients often come back because they've found surgery gets them the results they're looking for at work... The good news is that surgery is slowly becoming less of an issue for men. After all, look at [General Sir] Michael Jackson, [the Ministry of Defence chief of the general staff]. He had his eye bags done a few years ago and he's opened up the way for every macho career man to go under the knife."

Despite increasing numbers of men opting for surgery, the figures suggest that it is women who have been more affected by this trend. "Women have always struggled for equality in the workplace therefore this new-placed emphasis on the importance of appearance in industry will naturally affect them to a greater extent," says Ron Myers, director of the Consulting Room, an independent resource website for people considering cosmetic enhancement. "Competition for the top jobs is that much harder for women, without throwing ageing into the equation as well."

Competition was a concern for Lesley Strickley, a 47-year-old training executive from Birmingham. She used to work on the engineering side of telecommunications but wanted to move into training. However, she didn't have the confidence to go for it. "Last year I decided to have a deep chemical facial to reduce the freckles and wrinkles on my face and I had a breast uplift because I'd always hated my chest. I went from a 34DD to a 34C." Simply knowing that she had booked in for the surgery changed Lesley's career: "I applied for the training job before I had the operation and got it because my confidence levels had soared."

Lesley relishes having a fresh complexion when she's working with the company's young IT team and it has affected her work life in many areas. "I don't sit in the back row in seminars anymore, I can look people directly in the eye and I'm the first one to shake customer's hands - I don't wait for colleagues to introduce me anymore. I wish I'd had the surgery years ago." Lesley's operations weren't cheap, she paid £8,500 for her breast uplift and peel with Dr Roberto Viel at the London Centre for Aesthetic Surgery, but she is convinced it was worth it. "When I go to London for business meetings I often take the afternoon off and book in to have my lips done - it lasts for only three months."

For Lesley and Victor the results have been swift, but should surgery be on the checklist of every ambitious person? "If surgery gets you to where you want to go and makes you happy then I don't see why you shouldn't do it. It's an individual choice," says Waring. "However you should never rush into it, research it well and try to talk to others who have had the procedure to find out how they feel. The surgery may make you feel more confident in positions of authority, but if you don't believe on the inside that you are well-respected or a good delegator, then you probably never will be, whatever you have done."

But surely we don't all need to be good-looking to be successful? As Ros Jay, author of How to Manage Your Boss (Prentice Hall, £12.99) points out: "Big ears haven't held back the careers of people like Martin Clunes or Andrew Marr." And although that is certainly true, career surgery appears to be a trend which is set to grow as it becomes increasingly accepted in every industry.

"More and more people will have surgery for work-related reasons because ageism is a fact of life," says Myers. "Add to that mix the lack of job security faced by many these days, plus the increasing need to work longer due to inadequate pension resources, and it's no wonder that people feel a need to look younger in order to retain their jobs." The figures back up Myers' prediction. "Silver surgery" is booming and The Harley Medical Group say that the proportion of its cosmetic surgery patients who were over 50 had risen from 5 per cent to 21 per cent in the last five years. It found that people did not want to be on the "retirement list before they are ready to quit". So, young or old, male or female, it seems surgery could soon be as central to career success as degree results.

'My nose was holding me back'

Nick Ede, 32, works in PR and television

When I was at art and drama college, people frequently asked me where I was from, for the simple reason that my nose didn't match my face. I felt that it shouldn't be a part of my body and the older I got, the more my confidence dropped. Whenever I travelled by train I'd catch my profile in the window and feel thoroughly depressed.

When I was 23 years old, I decided to bite the bullet and have a nose job. If I hadn't done that I'm convinced I wouldn't have got to where I am today. At first, I hated the results. I looked like a pig because my nose was so small and I barely recognised myself. However, once all the swelling had gone down, I was very pleased.

Today, I present a lifestyle slot on GMTV, I'm filming a show for Sky One and I often appear on programmes like Trisha. In both my jobs as a TV presenter and PR executive, image is all-important. You've got to look good when you're selling something to other people, otherwise who is going to believe in you? For me, being a success meant changing something small about myself, and that was a small price to pay.

The investment

The average price of procedures:

Face/neck lift £7,750

Breast reduction £6,000

Nose surgery £4,500

Eyelid surgery £4,000

Brow lift £2,500

Ear surgery £2,500

Source: Abbey