7 Ways You Can Be Fired For Your Appearance -- Legally

height difference: being fired for appearanceYou've almost certainly heard about the dentist who was so afraid that he couldn't resist sexually harassing his very attractive female employee that he fired her. The Iowa Supreme Court upheld the firing, saying that firing someone because they're too attractive didn't violate Iowa law. If you haven't heard about it, no, I'm not kidding.
I also got this question through AOL Jobs recently: I was just terminated for wearing the wrong kind of shoes. Do you think i have a case against my employer? I'm going to get a lawyer. The shoes I have cover my toe, which is the only requirement in the dress code.

The too-pretty-to-work case and my questioner bring up an issue that I get lots of questions about in my law practice: can you be fired for your appearance? The answer: It depends. While employers can't fire you based on race, sex, national origin, age, disability or other protected categories that may relate to appearance, there are some appearance-based firings that may be perfectly legal. Here are seven ways your employer might get away with it:

1. Too attractive: Unfortunately, it may well be legal to fire or refuse to hire an employee who is just too darned gorgeous. However, if your boss makes comments like, if his pants are bulging that's a sign your clothes are too revealing, as the boss in the too-pretty-to-work case did, you might have a case of sexual harassment. I'd also ask whether men and women are being held to the same standard. If hunky guys are allowed to stay but gorgeous gals are fired, that's a sign that sex discrimination might be happening in your workplace.

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2. Too ugly: No doubt about it, attractive people are more successful than the beauty-challenged. Unfair? Absolutely. Illegal? Doubtful. However, this is another of those situations in which you should look around. If only males or only females are being held to the beauty standard, then it might be sex discrimination. Similarly, if only people of a particular race, age or national origin are being held to an appearance standard, the company may have crossed the line into illegal discrimination.

3. Too fat: While employers can and do fire, and refuse to hire or promote people because they are overweight, if you are obese, you might be protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act. If only overweight women are targeted (or only men), then there might be sex discrimination. I haven't seen a case like this, but I suspect that a person from a nationality that is disproportionately overweight might argue that weight standards have a disparate impact on their nationality. Michigan makes weight discrimination expressly illegal. Some cities, such as Santa Cruz, Calif., Binghamton, N.Y., and San Francisco have ordinances against weight discrimination. There's a bill pending in Massachusetts that would also make weight discrimination illegal.

4. Too thin: Yes, the thin face discrimination too. While this is mostly legal, if your weight problem is due to a disability, you might have a claim under the Americans With Disabilities Act. If your job has a minimum weight requirement, unless the employer can demonstrate a business necessity and that no other criteria can be used as a substitute to weight, then this requirement may have a disparate impact on women and be illegal discrimination. You may also have a remedy if your state or local law prohibits weight discrimination (see No. 3 above).

More: Is Weight Discrimination At Work Illegal?

5. Wrong clothes: When I describe the concept of at-will employment to people, I usually say something like, "Your employer can fire you because they didn't like your shoes that day." Most people laugh, like I'm making that up. Yet this is the third time I've had someone tell me they were fired for their shoes. In every state but Montana, you're an at-will employee unless you have a contract or union agreement that says otherwise. Your employer can decide they don't like your shirt or your shoes and fire you. However, if they don't like your shirt because you are using it to protest working conditions, then the National Labor Relations Act says they can't fire you for that. If special shoes needed for a disability violate a dress code, the employer must provide a reasonable accommodation to allow the employee to perform their job. If the employee objects to a uniform or dress code for religious reasons, the employer may have to grant an accommodation to respect the employee's religious beliefs or face the consequences.

6. Too short: Like attractive folks, tall people tend to make more money than short people. Minimum height requirements may have a disparate impact on women, so employers must be very careful in imposing height requirements. If your company tends to equally prefer taller men and women over shorter ones, you may be out of luck. If you're lucky enough to live in Michigan, or the cities of Santa Cruz, Binghamton or San Francisco height discrimination is expressly illegal there. Massachusetts has a similar bill pending in the legislature right now.

7. Too young: Sometimes people are turned down for jobs promotions because they look too young. This is legal in most states. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act only protects employees over age 40 against discrimination based on being too old. Some states, such as Alaska, Florida, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and New Jersey, and municipalities such as New York City, have laws prohibiting discrimination based on being too young.

There's some hope for the appearance-challenged. A few cities, such as Madison, Wis., Urbana, Ill., and Washington, D.C., have passed laws against appearance discrimination. It looks like appearance will be one of the areas legislatures will be looking at in the years to come.

In the meantime, if you think you've been subjected to illegal appearance discrimination based on race, shade of skin color, gender, national origin, disability, religion, pregnancy or some other protected category in your state, you should talk to an employment lawyer in your state about your rights.


If you need legal advice, it's best to talk to an employment lawyer in your state, but if you have general legal issues you want me to discuss publicly here, whether about discrimination, working conditions, employment contracts, medical leave, or other employment law issues, you can ask me at AOL Jobs. While I can't answer every question here, your question might be featured in one of my columns, or in an upcoming live video chat.

Age Discrimination in the Corporate Setting




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68 Comments

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jbond1616

I don't see a problem with being fired for your appearance. As long as it's a moderate excuse. If my employees got a bunch of tattoos I would fire them to be honest.
John Bond | http://www.chrisfranzlaw.com/practice.htm

April 18 2014 at 12:50 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Sam Esh

What! I hear the salt and pepper look is supposed to be good. It shows that you have experience but are still energetic and young enough to get the job done. Well that is what I learned from a commercial on tv. http://www.macneilfirm.com/illinois-dui-defense/

January 30 2014 at 12:23 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
john34howard

It sounds like you can be fired for just about anything. I think that if you work hard and come to work when you are supposed to then the company isn't going to fire you. I think that you just need to have good judgment and that will make sure that you keep your job. http://www.johnrhynelaw.com/Basic-Bankrupcy-Information/

January 28 2014 at 4:32 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
shellyslader

This is crazy! There is so much prejudice! Just make sure you're absolutely perfect if you don't want to get fired.
Shelly Slader | http://www.wotitzkylaw.com

January 20 2014 at 3:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Zoe Taylor

Interesting.... I have never heard of a lot of these before. Luckily I have not had to deal with them either. I am going to talk to my lawyer at http://www.lshlaw.com and see if these are true!

January 06 2014 at 3:35 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ectullis

And the number one reason, too old.

May 23 2013 at 7:00 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
budshort

I guess the company I work for is the odd man out in this discussion. We have old, young, skinny, overweight, pretty, goofy looking, and ugly enough to scare a hungry bulldog out of a butcher shop all working for the same company. I was hired on two years ago at age 63 and the month before that they hired a guy a year older than me. Seems they hire on the basis of experience and ability rather than appearance. I'm not going to say where I am on the other factors but I'll never be a jockey and the last time I went into a butcher shop, a panicked bulldog was scrambling out the opposite door.

May 23 2013 at 8:53 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Ttest Ttst

Since most short people are from countries near the equator, could height discrimination be considered racism?

Here's a world map of male height by country:

http://www.targetmap.com/viewer.aspx?reportId=5744

And here's a list of countries we're "throwing out" of the US economy if we discriminate based on height:

Mexico
Italy
Greece
Japan
Thailand
Spain
Costa Rica
China
Iraq

and the list goes on...

Sounds EXACTLY like a form of racism, doesn't it? Except, rather than using what color your skin is and what continent your ancestors are from, we decided to use height, and what latitude your ancestors are from.

May 11 2013 at 1:18 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Ttest Ttst's comment
Going Ballistic

Agree to an extent, but is also using financial leveraging mechanisms to distance from the ramifications of economic discrimination - this is a topic that researchers are well aware of, but many people are not connecting the dots on just how insidiously it operates - its like the same with credit crisis; promise growth and stability, but not when it comes to wages to match increasing costs. The results are probably very similar to what we are seeing in terms of who succeeds, who fails, not by incapability, but by design.

May 23 2013 at 10:37 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Eva Rinaldi

Also interesting how many of these on this list can be social class indicators- your employer can't fire you for being poor, but they CAN fire you for being short or not attractive, and we're biologically designed to think people who got more food and had healthier childhoods are more attractive and grow up taller. Weight in America is also often linked to social class since the poor often have issues getting healthy foods. Very young or very old people are more likely to be broke, and of course if that doesn't work your employer can tell you to buy new shoes, even though your shoes fit the written dress code, or they'll fire you. When you can't do so because you live paycheck to paycheck- well they gave you a chance, so you look like you were just being difficult.

June 16 2013 at 12:40 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
DN

I once heard of a female letter-carrier in FL who was fired for taking too-small steps. She was taking too many steps to get from one house to the next on her walking route. How's that for discrimination?

April 30 2013 at 4:03 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
eternalhealth1

Self-Employment and Working at home is looking better everyday!

April 19 2013 at 11:35 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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