INSIGHT: ‘You Look Mahvelous!’ Avoiding Appearance-Based Discrimination at Work

June 28, 2019

Employers that allow gender-based stereotypes to affect employment decisions or, in some jurisdictions, impose gender-based grooming codes risk violating anti-discrimination laws. Dechert attorneys discuss appearance-based discrimination framed as race or sex discrimination and provides practical advice for employers to avoid liability. 

Don’t judge a book by its cover. This is the lesson taught by parents and teachers for generations.

In life and in the workplace, however, studies show that we have an innate tendency to judge people by physical attractiveness—a propensity to subconsciously assume that attractive people possess other desirable traits, such as intelligence and honesty.

While no federal law explicitly prohibits personal appearance discrimination, some state and local laws now provide additional protection in this area. The anti-discrimination statutes in the District of Columbia and in Madison, Wisc., both include “physical appearance” within their lists of protected categories. See D.C. Code §2-1401.02(22); Mad. Gen. Ord. §39.03(2)(bb). Moreover, New York City recently issued guidance addressing issues of discrimination on the basis of hairstyle, and California is poised to become the first state to prohibit discrimination on this basis.

Absent a specific state or local prohibition, employees who claim appearance-based discrimination must assert a link to some protected class to secure statutory protection.

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