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National Poll Shows Public Opinion Sharply Divided on Regulating Appearance - From Weight to Tattoos

  • March 22, 2005

Charlotte, NC (March 22, 2005) – The latest national survey by the Employment Law Alliance (ELA) reveals a nation deeply divided over regulating appearance in the U.S. workplace – from weight to clothing, hairstyles to body piercing. As the debate intensifies, more than half of those surveyed said their employers had no policy addressing employee personal appearance.

The “America At Work” poll questioned 1,000 Americans on their views on appearance-based discrimination as employer-employee disputes increase and frequently spill over into the courts and government enforcement agencies. The rash of recent cases include an Atlantic City casino sued over a requirement that cocktail waitresses undergo weekly weigh ins; a challenge based on religious beliefs to a national superstore chain’s prohibition on “visible facial or tongue jewelry (earrings excepted)”; a $40 million settlement involving a national, trendy clothing retailer accused of appearance-based personnel practices; and an employer’s requirement that female employees wear make-up.

Keith M. Weddington, partner and head of the Carolinas based Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein, LLP’s employment law practice, said that “claims of appearance or image-based discrimination highlight the tension between an employer’s need to manage its business in the manner it deems best and employees’ desire for individual self expression. Employers generally will be allowed some leeway to regulate employee appearance, so long as appearance standards are not based on an employee’s unchangeable characteristics, such as race, gender, age and national origin.”

Here are the major findings of the poll, which has a confidence interval of +/- 3.1%, and was conducted over a recent weekend by the Media, PA market research firm of Reed, Haldy, McIntosh & Associates of a representative national sample of the adult population.

  • 39% said employers should have the right to deny employment to someone based on appearance, including weight, clothing, piercing, body art, or hair style
  • 33% said that in their own workplace workers who are physically attractive are more likely to be hired and promoted
  • 33% said workers who are unattractive, overweight, or generally look or dress unconventionally, should be given special government legal protection such as that given persons with disabilities.
  • Of the 39% who said employers should have the right to deny employment based on looks, men outnumbered women 46% to 32%, while whites outnumbered non-whites 41% to 24%.

The workers were not only asked their opinion on this simmering issue, they were asked if they had any relevant personal experience.

  • 16% said they had been the victim of appearance-based discrimination
  • Of those, 38% said the discrimination was based on their overall appearance while 31% said it was their weight, and 14% said it was a reaction to their hairstyle
  • 33% of those saying they had been discriminated against said it was for some other reason.

Weddington pointed out that the poll found that supervisors and managers are much more likely than non-supervisors to support a policy permitting companies to regulate personal appearance. The survey found that 47% of the supervisors surveyed said employers should have the right to deny employment based on looks, while 35% of the non-supervisors supported that position.

Weddington explained that “While most of the employee claims in the past have involved direct-customer contact businesses like retailing, restaurants, and transportation, the potential for image or appearance-based claims is increasing in virtually every area, as more and more companies seek to hire and promote employees who embody the image that the employer seeks to promote for its products or services. Employers have to focus on the requirements of the position when making personnel decisions if they are going to be able to successfully defend themselves against a discrimination claim.”

Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein LLP currently has more than 165 lawyers, with five offices in the Carolinas. Parker Poe has North Carolina offices in Charlotte and Raleigh and South Carolina offices in Charleston, Columbia and Spartanburg. The firm provides a complete range of legal services, including extensive experience in antitrust and business torts, banking and finance, bankruptcy, reorganization and creditors’ rights, commercial litigation, corporate and commercial law, employee benefits, employment, environmental, international, real estate and commercial development, securities, tax and torts, trial and insurance.

The Employment Law Alliance is the worlds’ largest integrated, global practice network and is comprised of premier, independent law firms distinguished for their practice in employment and labor law. There are member firms in every jurisdiction in the United States and major commercial centers throughout the world. For further information, including access to the survey charts and graphs, visit Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein, LLP is North Carolina’s exclusive member of the Employment Law Alliance.