DennisBeaverApril 25, 2015 • By Dennis Beaver

Karen, a Hanford reader, phoned our office in tears, explaining that she had just finished an interview for a receptionist position and the owner “told me that I am horribly fat, have no idea what clothing is proper for an interview, and unless I do something to improve my appearance, will go nowhere.

“He also said that my speech is sloppy, that I am difficult to understand, can’t expect to be hired with visible tattoos and piercings on my face, and to take a shower.

“Mr. Beaver, can I legally be denied a job just because of my appearance? Isn’t that discrimination?”

Suddenly I pictured myself at Disneyland, on the “It’s a Small World” ride, as some years ago this column heard from another job applicant with an identical complaint about the same business owner.

Want to get hired? Appearance is extremely important

For this story, we interviewed two attorneys who specialize in employment law, Peoria, Ill.-based Emily Perkins, and Isaac St. Lawrence who practices law in Bakersfield.

We asked these questions:

“Can employers legally discriminate in the hiring process based on a person’s appearance? Can appearance alone be valid criteria to reject a job applicant?”

Both lawyers had the same response: “Appearance matters.”

Perkins observes that “Appearance becomes even more important, especially where an employee will have direct contact with the public. Employers want and have the right to a professional and overall favorable image of the company or the brand projected.

“Employees need to balance the interests and needs of the employer with their own personal interest of self-expression.

“Dress can play an extremely important part — what you want to wear may not correspond with what the employer wants employees to wear. Especially with the younger generation, often expressing themselves with tattoos and piercings, unless linked to some form of religious practice, there is no right,” she points out.

Right to be free from employment discrimination

Under federal law, there is a right to employment free from discrimination based on age, race, color, religion, sex or national origin. However, there is no federal law addressing sexual orientation in the private sector.

The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) extends this protection on the basis of disability, and only Michigan, Washington D.C., and five other cities add physical appearance or weight, San Francisco and Santa Cruz being the only two in California.

Perkins answers Karen’s question this way:

“It seems clear that Karen was treated poorly and deserved much more courtesy during the job interview. That said, she needs to accept the fact that unless an employer is violating applicable Federal, State law or a local ordinance, a decision to hire can be based on any criteria.

“There is a right to discriminate unless you are violating the law, and it is not surprising that given piercings, tattoos, obesity, poor dress and the other issues, that she was denied the job.”

Advice to employees from an employment lawyer about grooming

“It’s not all about you,” St. Lawrence wants job applicants to understand. “We all make judgments based on appearance. You only get one chance to make a first impression, and an important part is your appearance. This is nothing new to our day and age, given the old Latin saying, Vestis Virum Reddit: The Clothes Make the Man.

“Realize that appearance isn’t only dictated by clothing, rather grooming, cleanliness, a nice haircut, clean-shaven or facial hair neatly trimmed. Tuck your shirt in and never wear sweatpants to a job interview. Also, shine your shoes as this says that you pay attention to detail.

“For women, do not dress provocatively. Men and women should both err on the side of over-dressing, a little more formal than usual.

“I am all for freedom of expression, and with every decision there are consequences.”

While society’s attitudes are changing, there are still a lot of employers who will not hire with a visible tattoo or piercings. And unless legitimately connected to religion or other protected class, they have that right.

“Being polite and honest during that interview, having good eye contact, acting in a respectful manner is far more important than many job seekers realize. Thanking the interviewer for their time can make all the difference in the world.

“Remember, no one owes you a job. Though you may consider yourself well qualified, a great deal of subjectivity goes into the hiring process. Putting aside the illegal reasons for not being hired — race, etc. — people are turned down because the interviewer simply feels they are not a good fit.

“Finally, Dennis, to your employer readers, nothing ever justifies treating a job applicant the way that business owner acted toward your reader. That kind of cruelty is certainly not legally advisable,” St. Lawrence concludes.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.