- Update: A Muslim woman filed a discrimination claim against Disney because the company wouldn’t allow her to wear a hijab head covering while working in a Disneyland restaurant
- A rash of incidents in 2010 may test the limits of when employers may fire workers because of their weight or "sexy looks"
- In most states, employers can make rules about employees' dress code, length of hair, and even weight
- Employers need to be careful to follow their state laws and not single out employees because of sex, race, or religion, for example
A Muslim hostess at a Disneyland restaurant filed a discrimination complaint against Disney because she wasn't allowed to wear her hijab head covering at work. She was sent home without pay for refusing to remove the headscarf because it wasn't part of her work costume.
A Disney official said the company offered to let the woman wear her hijab in a "backstage" position as a cashier out of public view. She was also given the opportunity to wear a hat and bonnet, but the women felt the costume made a joke of her and her religion.
It may be hard to believe, but there are times when you can get fired because of the way you look. A rash of incidents in 2010 may test the limits of when employers may fire workers because of their personal appearances.
Even if you haven't been to one, you're probably familiar with Hooters restaurants, where waitresses wear short shorts and tight T-shirts. By its own admission, "female sex appeal" is important, and it hires "women who best fit the image of a Hooters Girl."
Who's the best fit? Apparently not Rachel Crowe. At 5 feet, 3 inches tall and 123 pounds, she was fired after two years as a waitress/Hooters Girl in South Carolina. She says twice she was asked to lose weight. She did so once when she weighed 127 pounds, but was fired in April 2010 shortly after being asked to trim down from 123.
Neither apparently is Cassandra Smith, another two-year Hooters Girl veteran in Detroit, Michigan. In May 2010, her boss and people from the Hooters corporate office told her she was being put on probation and had 30 days to lose some weight. She was offered a free gym membership to help her slim down.
At the time Smith was 5 feet, 8 inches tall and weighed 132.
In June 2010, Debrahlee Lorenzana filed a lawsuit against her former employer, Citibank. She claims she was fired her from job at a New York branch office because she was "too attractive." According to her, she was repeatedly asked not to wear certain clothing and shoes because it was too distracting for her male supervisors.
Is All This Legal?
As a general rule, employers can make rules and policies about their employees' appearances. Dress codes and rules on grooming (such as hair length and facial hair) are common and legal, so long as the policies are reasonable and aren't discriminatory.
For example, it's perfectly acceptable for an employer to have different dress codes for men and women - ties for men, "business" attire for women. However, it's probably illegal for an employer to require women to wear business attire and have no dress code for men at all.
Debrahlee Lorenzana may have a discrimination claim against Citibank based on sexual harassment. If her claims are true, her supervisors may have created a hostile work environment when making comments about her clothes and appearance. Discrimination may also be based on her claim that other women in the branch wore more provocative and revealing clothes but weren't asked to dress differently, much less fired.
Some states and cities have broad ant-discrimination laws. The city of San Francisco bars discrimination based on weight and height, and Washington, DC makes it illegal to discriminate based on "personal appearance." And in Michigan, employers can't discriminate against employees because of their weight. If Cassandra Smith hasn't done so yet, expect her to file a discrimination lawsuit against Hooters in the very near future.
Unfortunately for Rachel Crowe, South Carolina law doesn't bar Hooters from firing her because of her weight. Unless she can show she was singled out because of some other trait or characteristic - such as her race or religious beliefs - she probably can't file a lawsuit. She knew going in that Hooters placed great emphasis on appearance - which it's allowed to do - and agreed to those rules when she took the job.
Everyone should know about their employers' rules on personal appearance and the like. In most instances the rules are fair and applied fairly. If you think you've been singled-out and discriminated against, talk to an attorney to see if what you can do about.
Questions for Your Attorney
- What kind of proof do I need to win a discrimination lawsuit?
- Isn't it discrimination if female waitress is fired because of her weight but a male line-cook can keep his job when he's obviously overweight?
- Do I have to contact or file a complaint with a state or federal agency or office before I can file a discrimination lawsuit?