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Can you be fired for the way you look?

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Hiring

Can employees be fired for being too fat? Can a job candidate who is missing her front teeth be turned down? Is it OK to hire or fire someone because of his or her personal grooming or appearance?

Most likely, the answer is yes.

Throughout most of the United States, discrimination based on personal appearance is lawful. Even where personal appearance discrimination is prohibited, local laws generally permit an employer to impose reasonable grooming standards. So if a job-seeker is knocking at an employer’s door, it’s reasonable for the hiring manager to consider if his or her appearance is in line with its workforce.

The topic is heating up, due in part to national headlines gained by two Hooters waitresses in Michigan who claim they were fired for being overweight. A judge gave them the green light to bring their cases to trial.

Federal law bans age, race, sex and religion bias but doesn’t address weight. Michigan is the only state with a law banning weight discrimination.

Weight discrimination is even more prevalent than race or gender discrimination, says a study in the International Journal of Obesity. It said that, among severely obese people, about 28% of men and 45% of women said they’ve experienced weight discrimination in employment.

In some cases, weight can be an issue under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has said that morbid obesity is a protected disability under the ADA.

“However, most of the cases don’t look at weight as a disability, but rather at the underlying impairment that causes the weight issue,” says Jonathan Yarborough, a partner with the Constangy Brooks law firm.

As for the job applicant missing her front teeth, attorney Nancy N. Delogu says she’d want to know whether the person had lost her teeth because of a disability. Absent that, she says, it’s fair to expect employees to meet reasonable appearance standards—or, at least, to wear a set of false teeth while working.

Online resource: For more information on federal employment laws that govern different types of discrimination, including disability discrimination, age discrimination and harassment, go to www.eeoc.gov/laws/types/index.cfm.

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