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Holding Female Employee to Particular Beauty Standard Deemed Illegal Stereotyping under Title VII

    Client Alerts
  • January 29, 2010

Image conscious employers may believe that employees who interact with the public should fit a certain look that meets the company's perceived brand. In recent years, these appearance criteria have come under legal attack based on their tendency to exclude individuals based on reasons protected under civil rights laws. Last week, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals echoed this trend by reversing a grant of summary judgment to a motel chain accused of terminating a front desk manager who did not conform to its idea of feminine appearance.

In Lewis v. Heartland Inns of America, L.L.C., the plaintiff was promoted to a managerial position due to uniformly positive performance evaluations given by her direct supervisor. After the promotion, a female Director of Operations for the employer allegedly objected to her presence at the front desk due to the plaintiff's masculine look. The Director allegedly said that the company preferred managers with a "Midwestern girl look." The plaintiff was required to submit to a video interview with company officials to keep her job, and was terminated when she objected to this process.

The Eighth Circuit concluded that Title VII has long prohibited employers from applying sex specific impositions on women in customer service positions. The plaintiff was not required to demonstrate that she was treated differently than similarly situated male managers. It was enough to show that the alleged discrimination would not have occurred but for the victim's gender. The cited beauty standard only applied to women.

The employer's requirement for a video interview undercut its position that the follow-up review was done for other business purposes.  Employers are free to adopt reasonable dress codes, even if those standards differ between genders. However, the employer cannot require applicants or employees to fit within perceived acceptable appearance standards that are tied to that person's gender.