Sexual harassment in the workplace violates city, state, and federal employment laws in New York City. Under all of these laws, sexual harassment is viewed as a type of sex discrimination. An underlying assumption in many, but certainly not all, cases is that the perpetrator is attracted to the complainant. Employment laws in New York City protect a worker in this sort of scenario, but what about when an adverse employment action is based on a lack of attraction, or other purported concerns about an employee’s appearance? To put that in blunter terms, can an employer fire an employee for being “ugly”?
No employment statute in New York expressly mentions appearance, but other categories might apply in some situations. The New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sex, gender identity or gender expression, age, disability, and other factors. The New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL) provides many of the same protections. Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 lists fewer protected categories, but the U.S. Supreme Court has established fairly broad protections under the umbrella of sex discrimination. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) of 1967 also address employment discrimination.
Addressing this issue from a legal standpoint is difficult, since it is largely subjective. Beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder, and some employers have successfully argued that appearance standards are a bona fide occupational qualification exempting them from discrimination laws. This has occurred in cases of men applying at restaurants that only hire female servers and women fired for gaining too much weight. All of these cases arguably involve standards of attractiveness or lack thereof. Several courts have also held that firing a female employee for being too attractive—which borders on an argument that termination was necessary to avoid sexual harassment—is not unlawful sex discrimination. Still, termination for being “ugly” might violate existing laws in certain situations.