A variety of well-established laws protect Americans from unfairness in the workplace because of race, religion, gender and other reasons, but less clear is the issue of appearance-based discrimination. The fact is that the bombshell in the cubicle next door and the larger lady three rows over are just as likely to suffer from looks-based discrimination. The bottom line is that the laws aren't clearly defined, so if you think you have a claim on these issues, look up your local laws and consult an employment attorney.
Federal legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides a basic framework regarding workplace discrimination, but states usually pass and enforce their own workplace discrimination laws. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission counts obesity as a disability under the ADA, making it possible to sue an employer for suspected weight discrimination. While at the same time, their skinny Minnie counterparts sometimes discover the hard way that slammin' bodies also cause problems. In 2010, Debrahlee Lorenzana sued Citibank for discrimination after its managers asked her to wear clothes to "obscure" her "distracting" figure and not allowing her to follow the same dress code as others in the office, according to "Forbes." When she complained and refused to comply, Citibank fired her, resulting in negative publicity and forced mediation.
Beauty and Brains
Though the common perception is that attractive women get all the breaks, recent research reported by "ScienceDaily" suggests it's not true. Attractive women who applied for jobs in male-dominated professions such as banking and engineering found less opportunities regardless of qualifications. Attractive men, however, suffered no such problems when looking for work. Unfortunately for the beautiful, brainy women out there, there's little recourse for those who fear discrimination in these circumstances. Very few jurisdictions prohibit appearance-based discrimination specifically. However, Michigan, Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Santa Cruz, California, each protect workers based on physical characteristics.
Before shedding too many tears for your attractive friends, consider that appearance bias "has been recognized since the late 1970s," according to "Forbes," but most victims are obese. The ADA requires employers to make "reasonable" accommodations for these existing employees, including job restructuring, transfer and unpaid time off in the event medical care is required. Check your state's rules, because each state writes and enforces its own variations on workplace discrimination law.
Mistaking Forms of Discrimination
What you think is one form of discrimination may actually be another. For example, two former models on the popular television show "The Price Is Right" complained after management made comments about weight requirements. Because the models were pregnant, their discrimination cases actually pertained to pregnancy as opposed to weight or appearance. Although actions may feel discriminatory, proving it could be difficult. As employment attorney Jim McDonald wrote for the website 4Hoteliers, what one finds attractive or unattractive is largely subjective. So last weekend's brownie binge may hurt your chances to fit into your favorite skinny jeans, but it may not form an appropriate basis for a discrimination lawsuit.
Lisa Bigelow is an independent writer with prior professional experience in the finance and fitness industries. She also writes a well-regarded political commentary column published in Fairfield, New Haven and Westchester counties in the New York City metro area.