Do New York Employment Laws Prohibit Firing an Employee for Not Being Attractive?

Central ParkSexual 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.

An employee who has allegedly been fired for being “ugly” may have a claim for unlawful discrimination in certain situations:

Sex stereotyping:  The U.S. Supreme Court has held that discrimination based on “sex stereotypes,” such as “[a]n employer who objects to aggressiveness in women but whose positions require this trait,” violates Title VII. Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228, 251 (1989). This can apply to appearance-based discrimination, such as if an employer terminates a female employee for not looking “feminine” enough. State and city laws against gender identity and gender discrimination could also apply.

Disability: An employee might be perceived as unattractive due to a disability, such as obesity, protected by the ADA and state and local laws. Additionally, an employee’s “reasonable accommodation” under the ADA may conflict with employer policies regarding appearance or attire, but the law still protects that employee from adverse employment actions.

Age: In a society that tends to prize youth and youthful appearance, this type of discrimination might just be age discrimination by another name. The federal government brought a discrimination lawsuit under the ADEA against an employer that reportedly fired an employee for being “old and ugly.” EEOC v. Kanbar Property Management, L.L.C., No. 4:12-cv-00422, order at 2 (N.D. Okla., Aug. 23, 2013).

The experienced and skilled sex discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates advocate for New York City workers in claims for sexual harassment and other unlawful workplace practices. Contact us today online or at (212) 248-7431 to schedule a free and confidential consultation to see how we can help you.

More Blog Posts:

2016 Marks the 20th Anniversary of a Groundbreaking Wall Street Sexual Harassment Lawsuit, New York Employment Attorney Blog, October 24, 2016

Sexual Harassment Extends Beyond Employees and Co-Workers, Affects “Virtual Assistants”, New York Employment Attorney Blog, September 20, 2016

New York Court Rules that Firing a Woman for Being Too Attractive Is Not Sex Discrimination Under State or City Law, New York Employment Attorney Blog, August 10, 2016

Photo credit: -JvL- [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr.

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