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Conventional wisdom and research posits that, in addition to popularity and access to their choice of a mate, attractive people tend to get higher evaluations and salaries than their peers and more favorable judgments in trials. For getting a job, it’s always an advantage to be an attractive man or woman …right?
Not so. Newer and more sophisticated research demonstrates that the picture is more complex than it might seem. A recent study shows a disturbing conclusion: being an attractive man was an advantage in all jobs sought, while being an attractive woman was considered a disadvantage in many professions. In this study, attractive women were discriminated against and their beauty was considered a detriment when applying for jobs traditionally identified as male jobs such as the manager of research and development (R&D), director of finance, mechanical engineer and construction supervisor. A different study showed attractive women tended to be sorted into more “traditionally female” positions like receptionist or secretary. More than one study has shown that attractiveness was more beneficial for women applying for traditionally feminine-type jobs instead of traditionally masculine perceived jobs. Successful women’s opinions about whether their beauty is a help or hindrance in their careers are inconsistent. Some women believelooks are an advantage, others a disadvantage, in career success.
In 2010, Debrahlee Lorenzana, made national news when she sued her employer, Citibank, for telling her not to wear clothes that were acceptable for and worn by other women in the same office. The list of banned clothing included turtlenecks, pencil skirts and fitted business suits “from Zara.” ( a clothing brand commonly worn by Catherine and Pippa Middleton) When Ms. Lorenzana argued that she was fully compliant with the Citibank dress code and remarked that her female peers wore far more revealing attire,Citibank managers allegedly argued that due to her body type her clothes were “distracting” and she needed to wear something to obscure her shape.Citibank fired Ms. Lorenzana from her position as a banker after she allegedly complained of her employer’s disparate treatment of her, stated her lawsuit.
The issue of appearance bias has been recognized since the late 1970′s. Partly as a result of activism by those representing obese persons. As a result of this movement, Michigan became the first state to explicitly prohibit discrimination based on weight and height. In fact, the EEOC now takes the view that extreme obesity, and obesity that results in other physical conditions, is a disability, and that discrimination based on such obesity is prohibited by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). The cities ofBinghamton, San Francisco and Santa Cruz prohibit discrimination against weight and height as well. Madison, Wisconsin and Urbana, Illinois have ordinances banning discrimination based on a person’s “physical appearance” and “personal appearance” respectively, while Washington D.C. prohibits all forms of personal appearance discrimination. A variety of people have sought protection under these laws including those persons required to wear certain attire for religious purposes and person undergoing gender reassignment surgery who had no recourse at the state or federal level. The great majority of these appearance discrimination laws allow for employers to use a bona-fide occupational qualification defense (BFOQ) .
Since federal and state laws do not prohibit this bias, appearance -based discrimination in the workplace has to be fit into one or more of the protected categories under federal and state anti-discrimination laws. Obviously, discrimination based on appearance can easily be a surrogate for more traditional forms of discrimination against Latinos, African Americans, Asians or women. Abercrombie & Fitch was sued in federal court for having a policy of hiring people who had “classic All-American” looks by some Asian-American, Black/African-American and Latino applicants who argued the defendant steered them into stockroom jobs. The parties reached a settlement requiring the retail clothing giant to pay $50 million, less attorneys’ fees and costs, to Latino, Black/African -American, Asian-American and female applicants and employees who charged the company with discrimination. Among other relief, the settlement required the clothing retailer to avoid recruiting at fraternities and sororities, and to feature people with different looks in advertisements and TV commercials. Obviously, discrimination based on appearance can easily be a surrogate for more traditional forms of discrimination against Latinos, African- Americans, Asian-Americans or women.
If businesses allow appearance- based discrimination, the courts are likely to step in, without the need for any new legislation. Discriminating against a full-figured, unsightly or beautiful woman because of her appearance is against the law as sex discrimination because such biases generally do not apply to men. While the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) does not offer protections to employees under the age of forty, local and state anti-discrimination laws might be applicable in appearance-based lawsuits, since some states, such as Alaska, Florida, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota,Mississippi, New Jersey and municipalities like New York City prohibit discrimination against younger people (or reverse age discrimination). An employee subject to discrimination because of a youthful appearance or stereotypes predicated on the employee’s young age might argue that it is a form of discrimination against young people. In New Jersey, a 25-year-old employee, who was hired as the Vice President of a bank, sued his employer after he revealed his age and was then told he might be fired and should work for the bank in another capacity instead, according to the lawsuit. The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that a claim for age discrimination based on youth was actionable under the state’s anti-discrimination law.
In a recent survey, younger workers (ages 18- 35) were more likely to report age discrimination than older workers. Similarly, 44% of employees from the ages of 18 through 24 believe they are treated fairly on the job in comparison with 64% of employees from ages 45-64, according to a survey conducted by a human resources consulting firm. In fact, reverse age discrimination could be another issue, which a younger generation, concerned that their talent is not recognized and opportunities are not open to them because of their youth, might bring to the fore to create another evolution of anti-discrimination law.
More businesses are likely to face such issues, especially now that independent research has confirmed this type of bias seems to exist broadly across the workplace. To avoid these missteps, business leaders need to establish a work setting that has clear rules that apply to all employees so they continue to attract and retain talented employees. More importantly, human resource policies established by business owners need to make sure all employees are being judged on their performance and not subject to stereotyping. No business should miss its next superstar because it is focusing on age, appearance or any factor other than performance.