Brenna Louis v. Harlan Inns, a Federal District court case in Iowa, involved a unique set of facts. To make a long story short: An admittedly “masculine looking,”� yet productive woman was not considered “front desk material”� for the Harlan Inn, according to one (female) manager who insisted on front desk clerks coming as close to the perfect “Midwest girl”� image as humanly possible.
The court, relying heavily on the U.S. Supreme Court case Oncale v. Sundowner (1988) stated that the plaintiff’s dismissal and harassment “was because of her sex.” According to the court, “The question is whether [the managers’] requirements that Louis be “pretty” and have the “Midwestern girl” look is because she is a woman.”
Interestingly, the chief judge dissented. He likened the hotel’s actions to declining to hire a female cheerleader because she isn’t pretty enough or a male fashion model because he isn’t handsome enough. The other justices disagreed, arguing that the employer is responsible for proving the affirmative defense that physical appearance is a bona fide occupational qualification (which they could not).
Editor’s comment: One can easily see the arguments on both sides. If I don’t like the way someone looks, I don’t have to work with them, whether I have one employee or 5,000. On the other hand, ther’s the argument that we’ve progressed past the place of permitting discrimination of any kind without a real business justification. Enforcing this level of tolerance or acceptance is always difficult at best. Of course, there’s a proper balancing point someplace. Here’s the case link.
The bottom line: If you’re aiming for a specific “look in employees,”� you might face a lawsuit. A well-known California case involved a manager saying that one of the L’Oreal cosmetic girls wasn’t pretty enough. The fact that she complained about this as a discriminatory remark eventually resulted in her filing a wrongful termination retaliation-based claim.