This article provides tips for employers and managers dealing with the unprofessional appearance of an employee. Common complaints are that an employee is overweight, unkept, ugly, has no style, doesn’t dress professionally, or just doesn’t have the “look” required for the job. Perhaps the problem is affecting the employee’s performance. Perhaps the employee is a distraction for co-workers. 

Minimize ‘Lookism’ in the Workplace

If you hire the better-looking applicant, rather than the better-qualified applicants, you may expose your company or organization to a lawsuit from the less attractive candidates.

The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission has ruled that obesity, for example, is a protected condition, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This legislation describes a disability as a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits life’s activities. Court cases help define the practical meaning of disability.

Lookism Court Cases

A decade before the ADA became law, in 1983, the first celebrated “lookism” case grabbed headlines when Christine Craft, a television anchor, sued a Kansas City television station. Craft claimed management had fired her in order to hire someone more attractive to read the news. After winning two jury trials, Craft ultimately lost when the Craft v. Metromedia went to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Other examples:

  • A hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey was sued by a former employee who said the hotel was wrong to fire waitresses who gained more than 7 percent of their body weight. The lawsuit claimed the employer required mandatory weigh-ins. The court threw the lawsuit out when it was revealed the waitresses agreed to the guidelines before accepting employment with the hotel.
  • In Meridian, CA., a male employee did not meet the height and weight requirements for a public safety position, and was terminated. He sued, claiming the ADA protected him. The court ruled in favor of the employer, saying the height and weight guidelines were not discriminatory.
  • In New York, a Delta airline employee filed a discrimination suit claiming the airline had different weight requirements for men and women. The airline won.
  • A California jury awarded more than $1 million to a 400-pound man who claimed he had been fired because of his weight. The man proved his weight was a physiological disorder which entitled him to protection under the state’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, legislation similar to the ADA.
  • A jury awarded a 320-pound female employee in Rhode Island $100,000 even though the jury didn’t find the employee “disabled.” The award was given because the jury determined that the employer thought the woman was disabled and gave her no opportunity to show she could do the job. This made it actionable under the ADA.

The key element in many court decisions has been whether an employee felt obesity was not treated as a disability. The presence of this element makes the case actionable under the Americans with Disabilities Act. In general, lack of attractiveness is not considered a disability and is not covered by the ADA. But courts have repeatedly ruled in favor of workers who claim discrimination based on obesity, or based on failure to treat obesity as a disability.

Employer Tips to Minimize Risks

1. Focus on job-related factors

One of the keys to avoiding discrimination lawsuits of any kind is to concentrate on the requirements of the job. This holds true for discrimination based on appearance. Although you might prefer to have an attractive person interacting with your customers, is attractiveness necessary? Does it really matter if your repair-people are good looking? Customers will judge them, and your company, by their professionalism and the results they provide.

2. If you think someone’s unattractiveness is a problem, make sure it’s a real problem before acting

For instance, suppose you have a customer-contact employee who becomes disfigured in an accident. If you assume the person’s changed looks will be bad for business, you’re asking for legal trouble. On the other hand, if you actually field customer complaints about the person’s appearance, then intervention may be justified. Keep a record of the complaints, to document the employee’s appearance is creating a hardship for your organization. Then find a way to accommodate the employee. For example, transfer him or her to a position with less customer contact.

3. Focus on appearance elements which can be changed

For instance, avoid objecting to someone’s face, body, height, or weight — these may not be changeable. Rather, look for possible modifications to wardrobe or grooming habits. Courts will generally support a dress and grooming code which is business related and non-discriminatory against protected factors such as age, gender, religion, and race.

4. Formalize casual

If your company has a casual dress option, then make sure it is non-discriminatory. Clearly communicate all standards, and apply them consistently. Don’t allow managers to judge dress by their own personal tastes.

5. Look out for biases

Encourage managers and supervisors to think about any preferences they may hold for attractive people. While such preferences are widespread, they aren’t fair to hardworking, talented people who don’t happen to be good-looking. Letting superficial bias influence work-related decisions is bad business. And, it can land your company in court.