Hiring Based on Appearance

Donald Trump’s comments about fellow candidate Carly Fiorina’s face got our resident blogger Robin Paggi to consider whether employers can–or should–make hiring decisions based on someone’s appearance. Here’s her take on that question.

Hiring Based on Appearance

by Robin Paggi

“Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president? I mean, she’s a woman, and I’m not s’posedta say bad things, but really folks, come on. Are we serious?” According to Rolling Stone magazine, presidential candidate Donald Trump said all of that about rival Carly Fiorina.

Trump has since said he was talking about Fiorina’s persona and not her appearance, but his comments bring up an interesting question in the employment world: while voters may choose not to vote for Fiorina based solely on how her face looks, may employers choose not to hire people based solely on their appearance?

The answer is “it depends.”

Federal law says that employers with fifteen or more employees may not refuse to hire based on race, national origin, religion, or any other protected class that might relate to appearance. Therefore, it is illegal for employers to refuse to hire applicants because they appear to be a certain race, or from another country, or to practice a certain religion. (Protected classes vary from state to state, so be sure to find out what they are in your state).

Other than that, in most of the U.S. it is not illegal for employers to refuse to hire someone because they don’t like how they look (there are some exceptions. For example, here in California San Francisco has an ordinance prohibiting weight and height discrimination and Santa Cruz has an ordinance prohibiting weight, height, and physical characteristics discrimination. Again, check to see if your state has exceptions.) Additionally, applicants who are disabled because of weight are protected from discrimination in every part of the U.S.

Thus, employers may generally refuse to hire people because they are not pretty enough. They may also refuse to hire people because they are too pretty. But, they can’t require that women be more attractive than men. That was something else worth noting about Trump’s statement about Fiorina–he singled her face out among all of the male candidates, which makes it look like he is holding Fiorina to a higher appearance standard than the men. Again, that might be allowable in politics, but it’s not allowable in business.

Those of you who think it is unfair that employers may refuse to hire people based on their looks are not alone. There has been some discussion about making appearance a protected characteristic; however, it probably won’t happen because ugliness is in the eye of the beholder, so who would decide whether someone was unattractive enough to be protected?

In sum, employers may generally refuse to hire someone because of his or her face. But, does it make good business sense to do so? It does if you make money because of how your employees look. Otherwise, it probably makes more sense to hire people based upon their ability to do the job.

Robin Paggi is the Training Coordinator at Worklogic HR.

Robin last wrote for us on constant swearing in the workplace . She’s also written about the virtues of requiring hourly employees to clock in and out at work. Prior to that she wrote about HR issues in entertainment news and before that on lessons learned from a recent high-profile retaliation lawsuit. Before that she wrote about a Facebook photo that promoted a firing and before that on making it OK for employees to ask for your help and before that on working in Family-Run Businesses. Before that she wrote on There’s More to Motivating Than Money;  Love at Work: How Should Employers Respond, and prior to that about lessons for employers in the Brian Williams matter.  Prior to that she wrote about giving employees a second chance. Before that she wrote about making sure the applicant is a good fit for the job and before that about  cure for inappropriate behavior at work. Before that she wrote about cyberloafing, on business lessons from a Christmas story and before that about cell phone policies at work. She has also written for us on rules for holiday parties at work and before that about preventing workplace bullying.

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