Can Employers Discriminate Based on Appearance? Yes.

May 13, 2015

Well-groomed people have an advantage in job interviews. At the other end of the spectrum, it’s not against federal law for employers to refuse to hire people with a less-attractive appearance. Under the law, grooming is considered a personal choice, not a “protected” characteristic. Companies can base employment on physical characteristics. They can even treat workers differently based on their physical attributes.


Appearance Is Not a Protected Class

It’s against federal law for an employer to discriminate against you because of your age, gender, religion, color, race, nationality, or disability. These are “protected” groups or classes of people, not personal choices.The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission doesn’t protect people when their employers treat them unfairly simply because of the way they look.


However, the federal government offers a loophole if you can prove that your appearance is tied to one of the protected classes.For example, there’s some debate as to whether obesity qualifies as a disability, which would be protected. There are times when appearance is closely linked to religion, which is protected.


Appearance Is Not Actionable

“Actionable” means that your problem qualifies as the basis for a lawsuit. Many state courts have ruled that a worker’s appearance is not actionable. These states allow companies to make employee decisions based on how their employees look.


Some States and Municipalities Disagree

Even though federal law doesn’t protect appearance discrimination in the workplace, states and municipalities are free to set their own laws against it. Many have. However, some of these laws only protect against discrimination based on things like height or weight.


Employers can fight appearance discrimination lawsuits by proving a “bona-fide occupational qualification defense.” BFOQs mean that it’s necessary for an employee to look a certain way in order to perform the job. For example, it would be unfair to force a lingerie retailer to employ a grossly overweight woman to model its product.


Grooming Standards Are Not Discrimination

Employers can also set grooming and appearance standards for their workplaces. This is perfectly legal, even in states that have appearance discrimination laws, as long as companies apply the same rules to all employees. Dress codes are a good example of this.


Professional offices have a reasonable right to prevent their employees from wearing sweatpants to work. Construction companies have a reasonable concern about long hair getting caught in equipment and leading to serious injury or death. They can require individuals to cut their hair or tie it back. Religious headscarves are allowed, but not if they might be caught in equipment.



Fanning Law, LLC Can Help

The facts of each case are unique and the laws in each state are different. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic. It is not legal advice. For more information about your specific questions, contact Bill Fanning at Fanning Law, LLC - The Offices of William C. Fanning, Jr. - 301.934.3620 or at


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