Can You Really Be Fired for Being 'Too Hot'?

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Published May 23, 2012

| FOXBusiness

Most everyone has heard of being fired for being late or making mistakes on the job, but a New Jersey woman is claiming she was fired for being "too hot," claiming she was a victim of discrimination. Lauren Odes, whose outfits at work included a form-fitting sequined black dress and sequin-studded black leather boots, is suing her former employer, the lingerie company Native Intimates. Odes, 29, said her employers told her she was dressed too provocatively for the job.    

While that alleged reason to fire someone might seem extreme for a New York lingerie manufacturer, the incident can serve as a warning to all other companies in how to deal with the way employees dress.

Human resources and legal experts weigh in on this issue and on how employers can avoid falling into a similar situation.

"There are certainly situations where it is appropriate to fire somebody not for their appearance, but for not following company policies," Matuson said. "For example, in this situation it sounds to me that they counseled her a number of times and told her 'You need to cover up,' but she chose to  dress in a way that they didn’t feel was appropriate in the workplace. It doesn’t matter if they are manufacturing lingerie; that doesn’t mean that it is OK to work on a line with your bra and underwear on. There are certain guidelines that are appropriate for the workplace … Having a well-written policy and making sure you enforce it unilaterally is really key."

  • Alison Green, co-author of "Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results"(The Jossey-Bass, 2012):

"Let's be clear: This woman wasn't fired for being too hot, she was fired for dressing inappropriately for the workplace," said Green, who also runs the Ask a Manager website. "There are very few offices, if any, where a tight sequined dress and sequin studded boots would be acceptable workplace attire.  Now, if other employees were dressing that way and were allowed to continue, then this woman may have a case. But if she was the only one dressing this way, then her employer were in the right. Employers are indeed allowed, both legally and ethically, to enforce a dress code and grooming code and fire people who don't adhere to it-- and it's pretty common to do so."

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  • Evan J. White, a partner with the employment law firm White Harris:

"When confronted with a situation where an employee's dress and appearance have an impact on the workplace, be it good or bad, there are a number of considerations an employer should take into account before addressing the situation, one of which is to look to whether there a dress code policy in place," White said. "If so, the employer should enforce the policy, whether through informal counseling or disciplinary measures, as long as the policy is applied uniformly among all staff. If not, a well-drafted dress policy that is uniformly applied can prevent future issues in the workplace, whether they involve wrongful termination, harassment and/or discrimination, to name a few."

  • Donna Ballman, employment attorney and  author of the upcoming book "Stand Up For Yourself Without Getting Fired: Resolve Workplace Crises Before You Quit, Get Axed or Sue the Bastards" (Career Press, 2012):

"I would ask if males are held to similar appearance standards," Ballman said. "If good-looking males aren't fired for being 'too hot,' then there could be sex discrimination. I also think there might be gender stereotyping issues if the employer assumes a good-looking female can't do as good of a job as a male. If they fired her because they assume she could become a sexual harassment victim, that's also illegal gender stereotyping. In addition, it's up to the employer to provide a safe workplace free from sexual harassment, so firing a victim or potential victim isn't the appropriate response."

  • Dan McCarthy, director of Executive Development Programs (EDP) at the Whittemore School of Business and Economics

"(People can be fired) for a dress code violation, which can include length of hair or facial hair," McCarthy who runs a blog on leadership said. "But for being too 'hot,' sexy, or good looking? Hell no, same thing for being too 'ugly.'  In my field, leadership development, there's this mysterious thing called 'leadership presence,' or 'executive presence,' which amongst other things, can mean image. You have to look, sound, dress, and act the part. In fact, there's even something called the AICI (Association for Image Consultants) where you can find an image consultant to send your sloppy executive to polish them up. Not having it can hold you back - even affect your performance - but I've never heard of someone being fired for not having it.

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  • Sami Asaad, labor and employment attorney with McCarter & English:

"While I'm not aware of any employee rights laws that explicitly prohibits 'appearance discrimination,' anti-discrimination laws might sometimes be implicated when employers make decisions based on looks or dress," Asaad said. "For example, when a female employee complies with company dress policies but is nevertheless fired for how she looks, this might implicate Title VII's sex discrimination prohibition. Employers can minimize the likelihood of such claims by focusing on employee performance, not looks, when making decisions. Also, with regard to dress related issues, a carefully drafted dress code can avoid a lot of headaches. It is possible for employers wanting a very modest or conservative look to achieve this while still complying with state and federal discrimination laws. The key is to make it practical and not unreasonably favor or burden one sex over another."

ReachBusinessNewsDaily staff writer David Mielach at Dmielach@techmedianetwork.com. Follow him on Twitter @D_M89.

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