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Curry: If you don't look the part, you don't get the job

Lynne Curry

Do you have to "look the part" to get and keep a job?

According to retail giants American Apparel, Abercrombie & Fitch, L'Oreal and other employers, the answer is "yes."

While those who apply for jobs at American Apparel don't need prior retail experience, company policy requires they submit photos and be "able to present themselves in a way that impresses and inspires customers." Further, employees who can no longer fit into AA clothing are subject to termination based on size.

Similarly, Abercrombie & Fitch's district manager issued a strict hiring memo stating A&F must "have the best looking & best-styled associates working." As one result of this corporate culture, employee Riam Dean's prosthetic arm was deemed unfit under A&F's "Look Policy" and she was banished to the stockroom. Another result -- a class action suit alleging Abercrombie & Fitch hired "a disproportionately white sales force" and discouraged "minorities from even applying for jobs" given A&F managers' apparent bias toward a certain look.

Months later, this prejudicial bias showed its downside. Senior L'Oreal executive Jack Wiswall told regional sales manager Elisa Yanowitz she needed to fire a dark-skinned sales associate he considered "not attractive" and replace her with "somebody hot." When Wiswall later learned Yanowitz hadn't fired the associate, he complained, pointing at a "very sexy ... young, attractive blonde girl" saying, "get me one that looks like that."

After Yanowitz repeatedly refused to comply with an order she considered discriminatory, Wiswall and Yanowitz's immediate supervisor Dick Roderick criticized her in front of peers, wrote memos severely criticizing her performance and solicited negative information about her from her employees.

Yanowitz, whose region included stores in Alaska and Washington, had ten years of "above expectation" performance ratings and was named L'Oreal's Regional Sales Manager of the Year for her demonstrated leadership and loyalty, found herself fired. She sued.

Although Yanowitz lost in district court, California's Supreme Court ruled in her favor, ruling a male executive's order to fire a female employee he considered unattractive constituted sexual discrimination -- unless L'Oreal held male employees to similar standards. The Court further ruled Yanowitz's firing unfair and Wiswall and Roderick's other actions similarly retaliatory.

My prediction: Courts will see "lookism," the need for a certain appearance, for what it is -- discrimination disguised and an unnecessary factor in hiring. As an example, when Southwest Airlines defended its policy that only attractive women could be hired as flight attendants and ticket agents and argued that female sex appeal was a bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ) under Title VII because Southwest wanted to project a "sexy image and fulfill its public promise to take passengers skyward with love," they lost. According to the court ruling, Southwest Airlines didn't exist in an industry in which "vicarious sex entertainment is the primary service provided."

United, Continental, Northwest and Ozark Airlines all lost similar suits -- as those of us who fly know. After all, what matters more -- does the flight attendant correctly handle safety situations and can the sales associate sell or does she fit a certain look -- to which passengers and customers may not even relate?

Meanwhile, some local jurisdictions have enacted laws that specifically protect employees from appearance-based discrimination. Thank goodness. Do we care what those who work with us look like -- or do we care what they are and do?

 

Dr. Lynne Curry is a management/employee trainer and owner of the consulting firm The Growth Company Inc. Send your questions to her at lynne@thegrowthcompany.com. You can follow Lynne on Twitter @lynnecurry10.

 

 


Lynne Curry
Management