Appearance Discrimination: Should It Be Included Among Protected Classes?

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I started doing some digging on YouTube this afternoon, looking for some videos for my up-coming workshops and some inspiration for a new blog posting. I found this video from 2009, about a very attractive woman who claims that she was fired from CitiBank because she was too sexy.

She claims that her supervisors commented on her pants and skirts being too tight and how her clothes were too revealing. In support of her claim of appearance discrimination, she said that management did not make the same comments to other, less attractive women employees who also wore clothes that were too tight or too revealing. The management, according to this woman, Debrahlee Lorenzana, singled her out because she was a distraction in the clothes since she was so beautiful.

So that leads to the question…should appearance be included among the protected classes, like race, national origin, religion, sex, etc. that are protected against discrimination? Statistics and experience say yes. A 2005 poll by the Employment Law Alliance showed that 16 percent of workers reported being victims of appearance discrimination more generally — a figure comparable to the percentage who in other surveys say they have experienced sex or race discrimination. Good-looking professors get better course evaluations from students; teachers in turn rate good-looking students as more intelligent. Justice isn’t blind either. Studies have shown that unattractive plaintiffs regularly receive lower awards of damages that attractive plaintiffs. Even lawyers aren’t immune from appearance discrimination as it has been shown that uglier attorneys earn about 12% less than more attractive ones.

Michigan, as well as five other local jurisdictions (the District of Columbia; Howard County, Md.; San Francisco; Santa Cruz, Calif.; Madison, Wis.; and Urbana, Ill.) prohibit discrimination on the basis of appearance. The addition of this protected class hasn’t opened up the flood gates of litigation, as lawyers often predict. These cities and counties each receive between zero and nine complaints a year, while the entire state of Michigan totals about 30, with fewer than one a year ending up in court.

This leads us all back to Debrahlee Lorenzana. While we usually think that appearance discrimination would protect those less attractive, there is no reason why “reverse appearance discrimination” would not be protected as well. If she could show that other, less attractive women were treated differently and not told to dress in a certain manner, and if it could be shown that the reason for her termination (alleged poor performance) is pretext for discrimination.

Personally, I think that appearance discrimination should be added to the protected classes. Appearance, like skin color and gender, is not something that can be changed, at least easily or without a large investment in plastic surgery and cosmetics, that few people have.

A Chicago ordinance from the early 19th century once stated that “Any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting subject . . . shall not . . . expose himself to public view, under the penalty of a fine of $1 for each offense.” We have evolved from here. Shouldn’t we continue that evolution?

Click here fora Washington Post article about appearance discrimination that served as the source for much of this posting.

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