How attractiveness became a new type of currency in the workplace

A slew of new research suggests more attractive people make for better chiefs and even boost the share value of their companies

A number of studies suggest that attractiveness plays an important role in corporate success, with one going so far as to suggest there is a correlation between a company's stock performance and the 'facial geometry' of its C-suites

Since American Psycho hit our screens at the turn of the millennium, the idea that bankers and financiers are vain and self-obsessed has permeated discourse. And though Patrick Bateman – the business card-obsessed narcissistic protagonist of the picture – might be stretching the stereotype to breaking point, the ‘beauty premium’ is real and pervasive in the banking and financial services industry.

“All the piss is about how you look,” one trader from an unnamed company told researchers from the British Sociological Association. His colourful language might suggest he is simply fitting into the industry conventions without giving it much thought, but research suggests there is in fact a link between good looks and financial rewards. A recent study by the University of Wisconsin has taken it one step further and established a correlation between a company’s stock performance and the ‘facial geometry’ of members of the C-suite. Looking good is actually a business matter now.

Since Marissa Mayer’s appointment, Yahoo shares have risen over 150 percent

The University of Wisconsin study is by no means the first to back up with science the idea that good-looking people have an easier time of it than their plainer-looking colleagues. In Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People are More Successful, Daniel Hamermesh, an economics professor at the University of Texas, suggests conventionally attractive people make three to four percent more money than less attractive people, and that it can amount to up to a quarter of a million dollars over a lifetime.

Joseph Taylor Halford and Scott H C Hsu, authors of Beauty is Wealth: CEO Appearance and Shareholder Value, devised a ‘facial attractiveness index’ to value the looks of hundreds of executives in S&P 500 companies. Results were compelling: when a CEO with a high scoring facial attractiveness was appointed to a top role, shares went up. They continued to jump with every TV appearance the good-looking chief made. Halford and Hsu singled out Marissa Mayer, the Yahoo CEO, who scored 8.45 out of 10 in the index. Since her appointment, Yahoo shares have risen over 150 percent.

Confidence vs beauty
The study also picked apart 1,830 mergers and acquisitions that took place between 1985 and 2012, and concluded that more attractive CEOs generally negotiated better terms for their companies than their average looking counterparts. “The evidence thus suggests that more attractive CEOs receive more surpluses for their firms from M&A transactions, a finding consistent with the hypothesis that more attractive CEOs improve shareholder value through superior negotiating prowess,” say Halford and Hsu.

Of course, these studies did not take into consideration skill and strategy, which must play some role in the increase in a company’s performance. But the results are revealing – and somewhat worrying. If the message is that only conventionally attractive people will make it to the top and succeed, it is no surprise that the young traders interviewed by the British Sociological Association are so concerned about their appearances.

Halford and Hsu might have identified a deterministic pattern in which only attractive people will succeed in business, but that does not mean that those less naturally blessed with the beauty gene will give up. The British Sociological Association paper claims many traders admit to dyeing their hair, and going on ‘boot camp’ fitness holidays to change or ‘fix’ their bodies. There has also been an increase in the number of bankers and finance professionals seeking cosmetic procedures to enhance their natural attributes.

“People tell me they need to have something done just to keep their jobs,” Dr Andrew Douglas, a facial aesthetics doctor in London’s famous Harley Street told the European Foundation Centre. He also claimed to have treated between 40 and 50 men working in finance over the course of 2013, earning himself a reputation as the ‘go-to guy’ for male plastic surgery for City workers. Similarly, in New York, Dr Stafford Broumand, a surgeon based on Park Avenue, says the majority of his clients work in the financial services industry, and that around 50 percent are male. Though the clients seeking plastic surgery are generally aged 40 to 50, according to Douglas, the wider trend of physical self-improvement is by no means restricted to older finance workers; younger workers will work out hard at the gym and invest in expensive labels.


Salary premium for looking good

Skin deep
Of course, all these studies must be taken with a pinch of salt. Measuring attractiveness is not an exact science, and there is nothing to suggest conventional attractiveness and professional competency can’t coincide without influencing each other. It might not be physical attractiveness per se that makes professionals more successful, but the confidence and self-esteem that comes with it.

More important than the actual results is what these studies represent for the industry. The results of the study validate questionable attitudes such as the over-emphasis of physical attractiveness in the recruitment process and can encourage some of the more negative behavioural traits already associated with industry leaders, such as arrogance and narcissism. Individuals who attach too much importance to superficial attributes such as physical attractiveness tend to display other, more problematic, traits, such as an over-inflated sense of self-importance; they are generally also vain and grandiose. While a healthy measure of self-confidence can be a favourable characteristic for a banker to have, unmitigated arrogance can be an issue.

A narcissistic CEO can have the confidence to drive a company forwards and inspire employees – but too much arrogance can alienate others and lead to trouble. Fred ‘the Shred’ Goodwin did not single-handedly demolish the Royal Bank of Scotland through lack of initiative; it was his spectacularly misguided arrogance that did. For more junior employees in the financial sector, arrogance can lead to excessive risk-taking and a disregard for rules and authority – and we all know where that ends. It is this kind of behaviour that leads to the ‘too big to fail’ mentality: in a bull market it will go a long way, but quickly becomes a problem when the bears come out.

It helps to look the part when occupying certain positions: a sharp suit, shoes shining like mirrors and a well-maintained physique will certainly help create an image of confidence and success, even when one or both are lacking. But it doesn’t help to cover deep-rooted flaws with a tummy tuck and bravado; the person others think they are investing in will simply not be there.

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