Should Looks Count?

By Michael Barrier Mar 3, 2008
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​It’s natural to want to be around attractive people. And, in some cases, employers argue that appearance is a job-related factor. But just how much do looks count when it comes to hiring and promoting your employees? At many organizations, attractiveness continues to play a significant role in many employment-related decisions—especially for individuals who are the public face of the company, says Patrick Hicks, an attorney in the Las Vegas office of national employment law firm Littler Mendelson. “Everything else being equal, certain businesses—retail is the best example—would prefer people who are physically attractive.”

Such a strategy is not entirely without legal risk, however. Although there is no federal law banning decisions based on appearance in general, most employers know better than to base employment decisions on appearance that is related to legally protected factors—such as race or age.

What employers and managers may not know is that employees’ appearance still can qualify for legal protection in some other situations. For example, some local jurisdictions have enacted laws that specifically protect workers from discrimination based on appearance. And some aspects of appearance, such as severe obesity or those related to gender ​roles or sexual orientation, can—in some situations—qualify for legal protection. On the other hand, the nature of the business or of the job can play a role in determining how much latitude employers have in requiring a “certain look” for their employees.

This mix of factors can make it potentially confusing to determine what employers are legally entitled—or obligated—to do when dealing with employees’ appearance. For example, client preference is no defense in a discrimination suit. “The courts have uniformly ruled that client preference is not a defense,” says Sharona Hoffman, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “If you really aren’t hiring people over 40 because you think the customers won’t like it, you’re going to lose. You can’t violate federal law [in this case, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act] just because you want to sell more jeans.”

But what if it’s not entirely clear whether appearance relates to the core business or merely customer preference? Say you’re selling jeans, but you think the youthful, hip atmosphere of your store is critical to its success in selling that product. “It comes down to a business decision: Do you think it’s going to do so much good for your company that you’re willing to take the risk?” says Talar M. Herculian, who practices employment law with Fisher & Phillips LLP in Irvine, Calif.

For example, some employers and managers may be reluctant to hire obese individuals, fearing that their appearance may bother customers. Generally, obesity is not afforded legal protection because, except for extreme cases, it is not considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Only Michigan has an employment discrimination law that specifically mentions weight, but it is yet to be tested. Some statutory bans on discrimination tend more than others to involve questions of personal appearance. Herculian points to bans on discrimination based on sexual orientation. Personal appearance will inevitably “be part of that discussion,” she says, because of the way gay men and lesbians may dress.

It’s an issue that has made its presence felt in federal courts. For example, in a landmark 1989 Title VII decision, the Supreme Court ruled in Hopkins v. Price Waterhouse that gender stereotyping in the workplace is illegal. Anne Hopkins had claimed she was terminated from her job at Price Waterhouse because senior partners perceived her dress and behavior as too masculine. This case is now being applied to allow claims by homosexuals and transgender individuals, as is Kay v. Independence Blue Cross, in which a federal trial court in Pennsylvania held that gay individuals can sue under Title VII alleging that they were discriminated against for not conforming to gender norms.

And it’s an issue that has become increasingly complex in California, which last year passed Assembly Bill (AB) 196, which amends the state’s Fair Housing and Employment Act. Originally aimed at protecting employees who undergo a sex-change operation, the new law wound up as a sweeping ban on sexual stereotyping. AB 196 prohibits discrimination based on an employee’s “identity, appearance or behavior, whether or not that identity, appearance or behavior is different from that traditionally associated with the [employee’s] sex at birth.”

The new law “is written so broadly that it gives an employee the right to look like a man or a woman on any given day, and you can’t do anything about it,” Herculian says. So far, AB 196 has not generated any lawsuits, much less definitive court rulings.

Under local laws in other geographic areas, dealing with expected gender roles has already gotten employers into legal trouble, as demonstrated by the case of Patricia Underwood, who worked as a receptionist for the Washington, D.C., company Archer Management Services until she was fired, ostensibly because her position was being eliminated. She sued in federal district court, alleging in part that her dismissal violated a District of Columbia law barring employment discrimination based on appearance.

Underwood was a transsexual—a male who had undergone a surgical transformation into a female—and she complained that Archer had fired her because she retained some masculine traits. Such a termination, she argued, violated the law’s ban on discrimination based on personal appearance. Archer countered that Underwood was really seeking protection based on her status as a transsexual—not a protected status under the D.C. law. Judge Charles R. Richey held that Underwood could go to trial on her personal appearance claim.

Contemplating the Underwood case, employers and managers might be forgiven for believing that a workplace where employees have the right to wear whatever they like and appear however they like—nose rings, dreadlocks and bright orange Mohawk haircuts included—lies just ahead. Yet, Underwood hasn’t opened the door to appearance-based claims. Judge Richey handed down his decision 10 years ago, and it has not yet spawned a flood of such suits and judicial rulings in Washington, D.C., or elsewhere. In fact, the Underwood case itself never made it to trial, and there is no record of a settlement.

Michael Barrier is a former senior editor of Nation’s Business and former senior legal editor for American Lawyer Media . He holds a J.D. from the University of Chicago. He served as a legislative aide to two members of Congress and as assistant attorney general in Arkansas.

Terms of Use: Advice for Supervisors from the Society for Human Resource Management © 2004 Society for Human Resource Management. Members of SHRM are authorized to distribute copies, excerpts or e-mails of this information for educational purposes internally within their organizations. No other republication or external use is allowed without permission of SHRM. The information is not intended to serve as a substitute for legal advice.

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