British employers are adopting US-style recruitment policies that value looks before ability, according to new research into discrimination in the workplace.
More than 90 per cent of bosses rated the right attitude and appearance, including looks and dress sense, above skills and experience, researchers from the University of Strathclyde found.
Their study warns that some men and women could even become unemployable because they are not considered sufficiently good-looking. Women are being passed over for being too ugly or fat, but men are also being turned down for jobs by being too hairy or having bad posture.
Experts blame this rise in "body fascism" in the workplace on the huge increase in UK service industries, where the attractive personal appearance of staff is often crucial to the company's image. This looks-obsessed culture is now spreading to job sectors such as banking, where staff have in the past been employed for their intellect.
The disclosure follows the case last week of Laura Zubulake, 44, a Wall Street executive awarded nearly £15.5m damages from bankers UBS for being called "old and ugly". The payout is one of the largest in an individual case for sex discrimination. Ms Zubulake, who was sacked in 2001, said she hoped the verdict would encourage other women to bring similar cases.
No specific law exists in Britain banning bosses from screening out physically unattractive job applicants. But equality experts say that women often use bosses' negative comments about their looks as evidence in discrimination cases.
Physical appearance was just one of the "many issues" behind sex discrimination, said Jenny Watson, deputy chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission. "It's part of a broader package of discrimination.
"When we did our investigation into pregnancy, one woman wrote to us to say that her employers had said they couldn't have her at breakfast meetings because she was 'now so fat and ugly'."
The Strathclyde study was based on a survey of 150 bosses and 128 male and female employees working in service industries, including hotels and restaurants. One hotel revealed that it trained women in hairstyling and make-up, while men were offered tips on how to shave and walk properly and to speak in a more attractive voice.
"You'll end up with a situation where a lot of people are unemployable," said Chris Warhurst, professor of labour studies at Strathclyde Business School, who led the study.
Others disagree with the report's findings. "In the UK you can be ugly but professional," said Dr Singh, an expert on women and business. "In the US you have to be perfect."
Additional reporting: Andrew Johnson and Anthony Barnes
'It's the overall impression, not beauty'
Joan Bakewell - once dubbed 'the thinking man's crumpet'
"Looks have always mattered or rather the delineation of features and the overall impression you make. People are much more sophisticated today in the way they interpret body language and eye contact. It is the overall impression rather than classic beauty. Beauty is more likely to get you harassed. I think [my looks] probably helped me, but I tried to ignore it. I saw myself as a journalist.
"At the time of the famous phrase someone else made a remark which I liked better which was 'she's not bad for a bloke', because it treated me like an equal. Broadcasting is a kind of performance so it does influence how you behave. The newspaper coverage was very slight; I didn't take any notice."
'All of us had to prove we are good at the job'
Katie Derham, ITV1 news presenter, says looks play a "small part" in the role of a newsreader
"How you appear on screen is going to be part of why you're employed but only a small part. All of us have had to prove we are good at the job, that we have the journalistic credentials and that we can cope with live events breaking on air. It's also important that we don't distract the viewers, and that they are listening to what we say rather than thinking about a haircut or Armani suit. It's important that I look tidy and business-like and appropriate for the job in hand.
Looks are not something that has been played on by me or my employers. It could be that I haven't got jobs because of the way I look. Because of the work I'm in, I'm sure it's not been one of the main criteria by which I've been judged. It may be a criterion but not the criterion. Certainly one should be against any form of discrimination."
'Some of my colleagues thought I looked odd'
Tory MP Ann Widdecombe, once known as 'Doris Karloff' joined celebrity fit club for health reasons and changed her appearance
"I didn't have a makeover. I coloured my hair black for years, but it was turning white and any woman will tell you it is easier to keep it coloured blonde.
"Looks should not be important, but I suspect that they are. The more we concentrate on the physical perfection, the quicker we lose sight of spiritual perfection, and to me that is upside down.
"My looks have never done me any harm with the voters, although some of my colleagues thought I looked a bit odd.
"I really can't say I've been treated any differently since I went blonde, although I agree it's been a big success."