We live in an appearance-oriented society, and many employers also make hiring decisions that are partly based on a candidate’s physical appearance. When you are preparing for an interview, you will likely want to groom yourself properly and wear appropriate attire for the type of position for which you have applied. While employers can make hiring decisions that are partially informed by a candidate’s appearance, they can’t make unlawfully discriminatory employment decisions. Here is some information from the attorneys at Swartz Swidler about appearance discrimination in the workplace and when it might be illegal.
Is Discrimination Based on Appearance Legal?
In general, employers are not prohibited from making employment decisions based on the physical appearance of a candidate. However, they can’t base their hiring decisions on an applicant’s protected status that involves their appearance such as race, sex, or color. If an employer decides against hiring an applicant based on their eye color, choices of clothing, or height, those characteristics are generally not protected under the law. Federal anti-discrimination laws prohibit discrimination based on an applicant’s national origin, gender, color, race, age, pregnancy, religion, veteran status, disability, marital status, sexual orientation, and others. However, appearance discrimination can be closely tied to unlawful discrimination against an applicant based on their protected characteristics in some cases.
Employers can impose appearance requirements on their employees as long as everyone is treated equally. For example, an employer can require all applicants to wear a uniform, keep their nails short and clean, and stay in shape. They can’t impose different requirements on different categories of employees such as female vs. male or pass over applicants who have a darker color, are disabled, or are older based on those characteristics.
Employees must be treated the same by their employers. Employers should not give additional restrictions to people with certain protected characteristics that make it harder for them to meet the requirements.
When Appearance Discrimination Might Be Illegal
Appearance discrimination might be illegal when it is linked to a protected characteristic. For example, an employer that has a policy that forbids people from wearing any type of hair covering might be unlawfully discriminating against people of certain religions. Some examples of types of appearance discrimination that could rise to the level of illegal discrimination are discussed below.
Race or Skin Color
If an employer discriminates against you based on your race or skin color, it is illegal under both New Jersey and federal law. If this has happened to you, you have the right to file a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and/or the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights.
If an employer discriminates against you based on your age, you also might have a viable discrimination claim. Under federal law, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) prohibits workplace discrimination against workers who are 40 or older. The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) prohibits discrimination based on age without the minimum threshold of age 40.
Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity
If an employer discriminates against you because of how you talk or walk, how you style your hair, or how you dress based on gender stereotypes, you could have a claim for sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination.
If you are discriminated against at work because of your disability and how it affects your appearance, you might have grounds to pursue a discrimination claim against your employer.
New Jersey Law and Hairstyles
The New Jersey Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair Act (CROWN Act) prohibits workplace discrimination based on an applicant’s or employee’s hairstyle when it is associated with their race. The protected hairstyles include twists, locks, and braids, and the CROWN Act amends the NJLAD’s prohibition against race discrimination by adding hairstyles.
Other Types of Appearance-Based Discrimination
Some employers have appearance standards included in their workplace policies. In some cases, the policies might be considered to be illegally discriminatory when they affect one gender but not the other. For example, if an employer requires female employees to maintain a certain weight but doesn’t require male employees to do the same thing, it could be viewed as gender discrimination. It could also be discriminatory against women who become pregnant or who are coming back to work following maternity leave.
Telling employees that they can’t wear hair coverings or that they must keep their hair cut short could be discriminatory against people of certain religions. Telling employees with gray hair to dye it could also be considered to be a form of age discrimination.
Get Help from Swartz Swidler
If you were discriminated against by an employer based on your appearance when it was related to your protected status, you might have grounds to file a discrimination charge. An experienced employment lawyer at Swartz Swidler can review the facts of what occurred and help you understand the merits of your case. We offer free consultations and can help you understand your rights and the legal remedies that might be available. Call us today at (856) 685-7420 for a free case evaluation.