Is it illegal to hire (or not hire) someone because of his or her appearance? The answer to this question is complicated. Strictly speaking, federal and state anti-discrimination laws do not cover personal appearance. Employers are allowed to enforce dress and appearance codes within certain limits, such as making reasonable accommodation for an employee's religious beliefs. For the most part, “appearance discrimination” is not a recognized category of civil rights law.
Lawsuit Alleges Disability, Sex Discrimination
That said, if an employer selectively enforces appearance standards against one group and not the other–i.e., judges female job applicants on appearance but not male applicants–that certainly could give rise to a claim of sex discrimination. Along those lines, the U.S. Supreme Court held in a landmark 1989 decision that employers could not discriminate based on stereotypes of gender appearance, such as insisting a female employee “dress more femininely” or wear makeup.
The reality is, if an employer is actively discriminating based on appearance, there is a strong probability they have engaged in other acts that run afoul of equal employment opportunity laws. Consider a lawsuit recently filed in Manhattan against a well-known media company. According to Bloomberg, a supervisor for the defendant “allegedly asked a recruiter for 'good looking employees,'” and then proceeded to sexually harass the plaintiff, who was recruited by the staffing agency but later denied a permanent position with the defendant.
The lawsuit itself also presents claims related to disability discrimination and violations of New York City anti-discrimination regulations. According to her complaint, the plaintiff suffers from epilepsy and “consequently experienced seizures from time to time.” Although she was medically cleared to work without restriction, the plaintiff alleges the defendant would not let her “work past 6 p.m.,” which was a necessity of her job as an audiovisual coordinator. She said the defendant also cut her pay as a result of the restricted work hours.
Separately, the plaintiff alleges her supervisor committed repeated acts of sexual harassment against her, including calling her a “whore” and “floozy,” and spreading “false rumors” that he was having sex with her. He also allegedly said he had “the hottest coordinator in the office,” meaning the plaintiff. As noted above, the plaintiff said the recruiter who initially got her the job claimed the defendant “specifically asked to show her Facebook/Instagram profile” before she could be hired.
Ultimately, the plaintiff said she was terminated–not offered permanent employment with the defendant–due to both her medical condition and her refusal to engage the supervisor in a sexual relationship.
Need Advice From a New York Sex Discrimination Lawyer?
As always, a complaint is a statement of allegations and not a finding of fact or law. But the above example illustrates the type of sex discrimination cases that are commonly brought in New York. If you find yourself in a similar situation and need advice on how to proceed from a qualified New York employment law attorney, contact the Law Offices of Mahir S. Nisar today.