Chicago Employment Attorney Contrasts Protected Class and Legal Appearance Discrimination for Illinois Workers
Chicago, IL (Law Firm Newswire ) September 22, 2014 – Personal grooming choices are not considered “protected” characteristics.
“It is not against federal employment law for a company to decline to hire someone whose appearance does not appeal to them. Companies may base their hiring and work choices on an individual’s personal characteristics, and they may legally treat them differently according to their attributes,” explained Chicago employment attorney Thomas C. Coffey.
Nationwide, an employer may not discriminate against an individual because of disability, race, color, nationality, age, sexual orientation or religion. Those classes are referred to as “protected” classes or groups. None of the protected classes include traits that require a personal choice to be a part of that class.
Protected classes are established to defend human rights values. They are grounded in the effort to keep people’s lives free from discrimination. As such, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) protects people when a basic “right” has been violated — not because their employers may have treated them unfairly due to the way they look.
Practically speaking, that means an employer can legally include fashion choices, hair styles, piercings, tattoos, build and other personal facets when weighing a person’s eligibility for a job. Such facets may not be the wisest or most useful criteria, but the employer may use them if he or she so chooses. Similarly, work requirements like dress codes are also legally acceptable, provided that they apply uniformly to all workers.
alone cannot launch a lawsuit.
“But there is an exception here,” added Coffey. “If you are able to prove that decisions based on your appearance were linked to a protected class, you may be able to file a lawsuit. For example, it would be illegal to link and judge dress choices related to religion or obesity related to disability.”
Many state courts have case law rulings that deny lawsuits based on discrimination of the way a person “looks.” As such, these states do allow companies to base employee decisions on how their workers look, as they do not acknowledge appearance discrimination. “That being said, numerous municipalities and states do have laws in place protecting workers from appearance discrimination, although such restrictions may be limited to weight or height,” explained Coffey.
An employer can defend against appearance discrimination accusations by providing a bona-fide occupational qualification (BFOQ) that proves it is necessary for a worker to look a certain way to carry out a job. For example, allowing female prison staff members to wear headscarves would put their personal safety at risk in the event of a riot.
Some parts of appearance are personal choices and are not legally actionable. “If you have questions about whether your treatment constituted illegal discrimination, discuss your case with an experienced employment lawyer,” Coffey said.
THE COFFEY LAW OFFICE, P.C.
351 W. Hubbard Street, Suite 602
Chicago, IL 60654