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Feb 032012

For years, many believed being attractive was the key to success in finding a mate, landing a good job, getting promoted and even earning a higher salary. Where employment is concerned, new research suggests otherwise. In fact, attractiveness may actually be a detriment in some fields, especially for women.

A recent study concluded that in matters of employment attractive males had an advantage overall but being an attractive female was a disadvantage in many professions. The study showed that attractive women faced discrimination and beauty was detrimental when applying for traditionally male positions, though good looks were beneficial when seeking employment in traditionally female positions.

But once you land that position or promotion it’s no longer a factor, right? Maybe not.

Debrahlee Lorenzana found that to be the case when she made national news regarding the issue. In 2010, Lorenzana sued her employer, Citibank, for banning her from wearing clothes that they deemed acceptable and permissible for other women in the office to wear.  Among the forbidden items: turtlenecks, pencil skirts and “Zara” business suits.

Citibank supposedly claimed that due to her body type her clothing was “distracting” and she was ordered to wear something to obscure her figure. Lorenzana, a banker, felt she was fully compliant with the Citibank dress code and was quick to point out that her female peers wore far more revealing attire. As stated in the lawsuit, Lorenzana was fired after she allegedly complained of disparate treatment.

Appearance bias is nothing new. Back in the 1970s the issue was recognized as a result of activism on behalf of obese individuals and Michigan became the first state to prohibit discrimination based on weight and height. The EEOC now takes the view that extreme obesity, and obesity resulting in other physical conditions is in fact a disability, and discrimination based on such obesity is prohibited under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Since federal and state laws do not specifically prohibit bias based on appearance, cases of appearance discrimination have to fit into one or more protected categories under federal and state anti-discrimination laws, which allows it to continue occurring in many instances.

An increase in issues may arise as a result of publicized research that such bias exists and should employers allow appearance-based discrimination to continue within the workplace, legal action will most likely ensue without the need for any new legislation. Since women are most often the subject of such bias, discrimination against the full-figured, unsightly or beautiful woman based on appearance can be deemed illegal as a form of sex discrimination.

To avoid discrimination and its backlash, employers should establish and enforce clear guidelines applying to all employees to ensure that performance and ability are the key factor in employment and that their companies are hiring and retaining the most qualified employees regardless of appearance.


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