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EEOC Begins Work Appearance Employment Discrimination Investigation

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) often represents individuals and groups of workers in response to claims which have been filed with the agency. However, sometimes the EEOC initiates employment discrimination investigations on its own, without being prompted by a complaint from a worker.

The EEOC recently launched just such an investigation related to alleged employment discrimination practices related to worker appearance. Specifically, the agency is looking into the hiring practices of a coffee chain based in Massachusetts which allegedly only hires women who are considered stereotypically physically attractive.

Why would the EEOC spend valuable time and resources investigating a situation no one has complained about? Precisely because in certain work environments, employees and applicants "may not know that they have been discriminated against."

When establishments like "Hooters" may hire females who look a certain way, it can become confusing to many who would not otherwise think to question the choice of other companies to hire based on a certain view of physical attractiveness. However, unless the physical attributes of an employee or applicant directly relate to the company's stated business purpose, the law does generally protect against hiring based on stereotypical concepts of physical attractiveness.

The laws protecting individuals from this kind of discrimination vary by jurisdiction. Physical disfigurement may be covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and certain jurisdictions actually treat "personal appearance" as a category which is protected under law. Still other treatment can be viewed as sex or gender discrimination if applicants or employees are held to a standard of what someone "should" look like.

The EEOC's current investigation and investigations like it should serve to remind employers and educate employees on their rights in this area. Though the law is complex and varied, nearly everyone is protected in some measure against appearance-related employment discrimination.

Source: FDL Reporter, "Hiring based on appearance can lead to discrimination claim," Katie Loehrke, Oct. 2, 2012

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