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Want to get paid like a CEO? Image is key

Making it to the top in the corporate world depends on much more than just appearances, with executive search firms and a candidate's résumé deciding who gets the corner office. Or so you might think. A recent study shows that when it comes to being the big boss, image is key.

"Giving the layers of vetting that goes on for a CEO, this just was very surprising," says Campbell Harvey, a finance professor at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business and co-author of the study, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

In three online experiments, Dr. Harvey and his co-authors asked nearly 2,000 participants to assess photographs of more than 100 unidentified CEOs and non-executives. The researchers used photos of white males only, explaining that there are still so few women and minority CEOs, respondents would be more likely to recognize individuals and possibly skew the results.

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In the first experiment, participants were shown photos of CEOs paired with regular people of similar dress and appearance. Asked to rate the competence, attractiveness, trustworthiness and likeability of the subjects, 54 per cent of respondents found the CEO group more competent-looking and 52 per cent found them more attractive. However, the CEO group was rated as less trustworthy-looking and less likeable.

In the second study, photos of CEOs of large companies were paired with CEOs of small firms. The CEOs of bigger firms were rated as more competent by 55 per cent of respondents. But bosses at smaller firms were rated as looking more likeable, attractive and trustworthy.

The third experiment produced the most significant results, Dr. Harvey says. Participants were shown pictures of CEOs and asked to rate their competence on a five-point scale. Turns out the group rated at four points or higher were paid on average 7.5 per cent more than the CEOs who scored three out of five.

"We found there was a significant relation between the rating of competence, so the look of competence, and CEO pay," Dr. Harvey says.

Yet at the same time, researchers found no evidence to suggest there is any link between a CEO's appearance and a company's profitability. In other words: Just because the boss looks good doesn't mean he can do good.

While CEOs may always have some influence on how others perceive them, Dr. Harvey hopes that the more people become conscious of how they judge others based on looks, the less likely they will be to be swayed by image, instead focusing on relevant criteria. All those executive search firms should be less drawn by a CEO's smile and more likely to comb through his résumé, he adds.

"Once people are aware of a bias like this, then it often is mitigated. I'm not saying it's going to go away, but at least it will become less prevalent."

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