You Can't Hire "Pretty"
Posted at Arkansas Employment Law by M. McClure on 01/30/2010

Title VII prohibits gender discrimination based on appearanceWithout being told by their lawyers, most employers know that they shouldn't fire an employee because she's not "pretty." Some employers need a little additional coaching. 

In 1989, the US Supreme Court found that gender stereotyping was a violation of Title VII.  In Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, the Supreme Court considered whether gender stereotyping disadvantaged a woman with a masculine appearance and mannerisms when compared to men. 

But, does discrimination occur when a female manager fires a female employee because she doesn't have a "Midwestern girl look"? That's just the question the Eighth Circuit recently answered in Lewis v. Heartland Inns.

In Heartland Inns, the plaintiff, Lewis, was by all accounts an excellent employee, and her supervisor recommended Lewis for a promotion to the hotel front-desk during the day shift. Lewis was in the new position for a month when a more senior manager, also female, visited the hotel. The senior manager did not believe that Lewis had the right "Midwestern girl look" for the front desk, and in the past the senior manager had stated that the Heartland staff should be "pretty," particularly at the front desk.  Upon meeting Lewis, the senior manager insisted on conducting her own interview of Lewis, although Lewis had already been in the front desk position for over a month.  

As might be expected, the interview did not go well.  The accounts of the interview varied between Lewis and the senior manager, but the result was Lewis' termination.

The Eighth Circuit reasoned that Lewis did not need to prove that she was disadvantaged in comparison to men, but instead, the court found that "the principle focus of Title VII is the protection of the individual employee, rather than the protection of the minority group as a whole." Therefore, there was no need to show that Lewis was treated poorly in comparison to men. 

Yes, this case expands the theories under which employers can be sued in the Eighth Circuit, but the rule that you should not make employment decisions based on employee's appearance really isn't news.  Unless an appearance standard is a bona fide occupational qualification (Hooters girls?), employers should just close their eyes when they make employment decisions.