Can cosmetic surgery give you a professional lift?

In a competitive and age-conscious workplace, some employees are putting their physical appearance high on the career agenda.

We’ve long known that business professionals are adopting healthier lifestyles to sustain the rigours of running large companies or holding down stressful jobs. Personal trainers, voice coaches, stylists are the norm – particularly for those seeking to get ahead or stand out from the crowd.

But how much would you alter your appearance to benefit your career? A little muscle paralyser or some gastric banding perhaps? How about a full face lift? 

Associate Professor Hugh Bartholomeusz, president of the Australian Society of Plastic Surgeons, says such procedures have become standard for many executives in recent years, even if they only benefit someone’s career in a peripheral sense.

“We are fitter and healthier than previous generations and aim to stay in the workforce longer,” he says.

“Older men and women also have to be competitive with younger executives to get or retain a position.”

“These procedures give the appearance of being well-rested and more youthful. It’s all about impressions.” Roy Cohen

Another aspect is the invasive nature of social media, which means more executives are literally “the face” of the business. Combined surgical procedures, all these factors have contributed to an anecdotal increase in treatments, including a small rise among males, says Bartholomeusz.

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This translates to about A$1 billion a year that Australians spend on cosmetic and plastic surgery, according to estimates by the Australian College of Cosmetic Surgery.

The University of Sydney Business School’s Diane van den Broek takes it further – she believes society is implicit in a “looks conspiracy”. Together with colleague Richard Hall, she conducted a survey in 2013 that revealed employers’ perceptions of looks and presentation.

“Intuitively, people who feel more confident about their looks will perform better,” says van den Broek, “but we have mixed up self-esteem and a prettier or more handsome face.

“The difficult question to ask ourselves is what is the workplace imposing on us and what are we imposing on ourselves?”

Working longer, keeping fitter

The financial need to keep working beyond retirement age is a fact of life for many, not to mention many employees’ desire to live a fulfilling working life for as long as possible.

Upskilling has long been essential to this aim, but maintaining health, fitness and energy levels have also become increasingly important to cope with demands of the workplace. With the increasing acceptance and affordability of cosmetic procedures, they, too, are now part of the “staying employable” package for some workers.

West Australian plastic surgeon Dr Paul Quinn says many of the men now seeking plastic surgery and cosmetic enhancements are in their 50s and 60s, but it is not uncommon to see a younger man opt for wrinkle fillers during a lunch break or a surgical procedure, such as liposuction, to remove stubborn, unwanted fat.

Diane Van Den Broek, University of Sydney Business SchoolWrinkle fillers are the most popular non-surgical cosmetic procedure in Australia, according to the Cosmetics Physicians Society of Australia (CPSA), with more than 91 per cent of plastic surgery clinics reporting derma fillers as the most requested non-invasive cosmetic treatment.

Quinn says that other procedures in high demand include eyelid surgery, rhinoplasty (nose jobs) and gynecomastia surgery – a form of liposuction which treats the male medical problem of gynecomastia, also known as enlarged breasts. 

Eyelid procedures rank number one in terms of the most popular plastic surgery operations in the world, with 1.43 million people having it done in 2014, says the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery.

One of those people is Australian venture capitalist Stewart*. 

The 58-year-old sits on the board of two public companies and has had his eyelids surgically lifted to improve his appearance. 

“I try to keep fit and active,” he says, “and now that I’ve had blepharoplasty [an eyelid lift], I definitely look younger and I feel a bit more confident.”

For Stewart, the procedure has certainly paid off. He says business colleagues and acquaintances have commented that he’s looking fit and well. The surgery is subtle enough to give him an edge, he adds, without people really knowing what he’s had done.

Perceptions in the finance industry

Roy Cohen, author of The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide, says the perception of getting old is a concern for many workers in the finance industry.

“It is an industry where ‘ageing out’ is a big concern for mid- and senior-level executives,” he told grindstone.com.

“These procedures give the appearance of being well-rested and more youthful, and that conveys the impression of having infinite energy … being tireless and having the capacity to go 24/7. It’s all about impressions.”

Christine* can attest to the validity of this view. She says age discrimination in the Australian workplace was a key motivator in her decision to have numerous cosmetic procedures.

She wants to work into her early 70s and believes that to do that, she needs to look as fresh as possible to be able to compete for roles. She works in middle management in a high-profile government organisation and was in the money market before that.

Professional Development: Essentials of interviewing and hiring: selecting the right candidate – this course describes how to evaluate candidates using a structured and objective process.

“Ageism is still alive and well,” she says. “I am now 57 and want to work into my early 70s. I think I have a much better chance of doing that in government than in my previous industry – the money market. All the people I used to know there are now retired. I left at 38 and was already approaching my use-by date.”

It’s not cheap, either. Christine’s eyelid surgery and nose job, performed in a private hospital, cost a combined A$13,000. She spends about A$400 every three months on botox to disguise frown lines and crow’s-feet.

The economics of good looks

As Stewart notes, aside from physical improvements, one of the less tangible benefits of cosmetic surgery can be the boost to a person’s self-esteem and confidence. This is a commonly reported effect; however, research suggests there’s more at play here – more attractive people are often hired over less attractive people, even if their skills and experience appear comparable on paper.
  • A study by psychologist Timothy A. Judge, of the University of Florida, and researcher Daniel M. Cable, of the University of North Carolina, found that every inch of height amounts to a salary increase of about US$789 per year.
  • Catherine Hakim, a professor of sociology at the London School of Economics, says the “beauty premium” is an important economic factor in our careers, citing a US survey that found good-looking lawyers earn between 10 and 12 per cent more than less good-looking colleagues. Moreover, she says, an attractive person is more likely to land a job in the first place, and then be promoted.
  • In Beauty Pays: Why Are Attractive People More Successful, Daniel S. Hamermesh, professor of economics at Royal Holloway University of London, argues that a good-looking worker may earn US$230,000 more than those with below-average looks over a lifetime. 
  • Data compiled over four years to 2010 by the Center for Creative Leadership in the US found that executives with larger waistlines or a higher body mass index (BMI) tended to be perceived as less effective by their colleagues.

The mirror has two faces

Career development consultant Dr Edwin Trevor-Roberts, CEO of Trevor-Roberts, believes the connection between appearance and career success is a red herring. 

“If people believe their appearance is letting them down, then they need to first take a good hard look at their capabilities, demeanour and how they sell themselves,” he says.

“Focusing on appearance may be the easier option.” 

In Trevor-Roberts’ experience, the crucial factor in the job-search process is not a prospective employee’s appearance, but rather how they will add value to an organisation.

“It is a person’s ability to do the job that matters,” he states. “Appearances, like ageism, are in the eye of the beholder. If a person thinks it’s a problem, then it’s a problem.”

Even Hamermesh is not suggesting that cosmetic surgery is the path to career success.

“Surgery doesn’t help much and, as a pure economic investment, does not pay,” he says. “Rather, I urge those who aren’t good-looking to emphasise their other positive attributes and take advantage of those.”

* Names have been changed.

Beyond skin deep

Career development expert Dr Edwin Trevor-Roberts has some advice when it comes to hiring the most competent candidate, rather than the best-looking.

Dr Edwin Trevor-RobertsHe says a selection process must be sufficiently designed to overcome our decision-making flaws and cites the three most common mistakes in decision-making:

Satisficing: Selecting the first person who meets most of the criteria. This is especially prevalent with time-poor managers.

Recency bias: Selecting the most recent person we have seen, as they are strongest in our memory.

Stereotyping bias: Selecting someone based on our preconceived ideas, rather than actual characteristics.

An effective selection process has a number of key elements, says Trevor-Roberts. 

First, the process must be tailored to the key success factors of the role. No one process fits all. 

Second, a variety of data sources is important to avoid overemphasis on one set of data. A selection process will commonly include a pre-interview task – such as a writing task – a series of interviews and psychometric assessment. Interviews can also take many forms. Behavioural interviews are effective, as are case studies or scenarios to test a person’s thinking processes.

Third, meeting different people inside your organisation is very useful. It is also powerful to meet the potential candidate in different settings, such as a cafe, where the informal setting can potentially reveal interesting titbits of information.

“Appearances, like ageism, are in the eye of the beholder. If a person thinks it’s a problem, then it’s a problem.” Dr Edwin Trevor-Roberts

Finally, careful reference checking is critical. This is best undertaken by the employer, not by a third party – such as a recruiter – to test the confidence of the referee in the individual’s ability to meet the key deliverables of the new role.

Read next: Salary outlook favours talented accounting and finance professionals


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