A new survey in the US into so-called appearance discrimination in the workplace confirms a trend of 'lookism' sweeping businesses across the world, according to employment law experts at Eversheds.

The survey, conducted by the Employment Law Alliance, the world's largest network of employment lawyers, discovered a culture of discrimination against those who are deemed overweight, unattractive or unconventional in appearance.

The survey also discovered that 39 per cent of Americans thought that employers should be allowed to discriminate on the basis of appearance and 33 per cent believed that those who are more physically attractive are more likely to get promoted.

Some 16 per cent also felt that they had been discriminated against because of the way they look. But 33 per cent also felt that those who are overweight, unattractive or unconventional in appearance should be protected by similar laws to those who are disabled.

Damian Kelly, employment partner at Eversheds in the Midlands, said: "While this is a US survey, its findings are very relevant to UK businesses.

"'Lookism' is not a trend which only affects those over the Atlantic - there have been examples in the UK of appearance discrimination. Two years ago, Fitness First received widespread criticism after a leaked email claimed that larger employees did not fit the firm's image.

"Also, a report last year by the University of Helsinki showed that overweight women earned up to 30 per cent less than their more slender colleagues."

In the US, discrimination legislation is starting to crop up on the grounds of appearance and if the UK continues to mirror US legislation, it may not be too long before we see similar laws here.

In California, for example, it has become unlawful to discriminate against individuals seeking employment or housing based on their weight or height.

Mr Kelly said: "We are increasingly becoming a 'lookist' culture and this is an issue that potentially affects us all whether we realise it or not. In time, we will undoubtedly have laws that protect us all from beauty bias, but in the meantime, perhaps we should keep off the cream cakes - it could be damaging to our career prospects."

There are a number of measures West Midlands employers can take to protect themselves from claims of 'lookism'.

Mr Kelly said: "Companies in the West Midlands should ensure employees do not make decisions based on unlawful assumptions, for example on the basis of racial or sexual prejudices.

" Managers should be trained to focus on abilities not appearance. Also, recruitment adverts must not exclude certain people from applying. Requesting applications from 'young', 'dynamic' or 'attractive' is likely to fall foul of sex, disability and, from 2006, new age discrimination rules.

"We can learn from our American counterparts and encourage employers to have a specific policy detailing the penalties incurred for making decisions based on employee appearance.

"Forty five per cent of employers in the US have a policy in place. The safest option is to follow their lead."