Appearance And Grooming Policies: Making Them Work For Staff

An openly gay man is suing his former employer, a hospital in New Jersey, for allegedly discriminating against him because of his sexual orientation and "lack of conformity to traditional gender roles."

The man began working at the hospital in 2011 and was promoted to clinical operations coordinator in 2014. According to the lawsuit, following his promotion, his supervisor often ignored him and treated him with disdain. He alleges that she told him he "wore too much make-up and perfume" and that "men should not wear make-up."

The plaintiff alleges the hospital put him on a performance review plan, even though his supervisor had never raised any concern about his work. In 2015, two days after he filed complaints of sex discrimination and sexual orientation discrimination, the hospital terminated him.

The hospital claims it terminated the plaintiff for legitimate and documented violations of its policies and for poor performance in his final year working at the hospital. The former staff member is suing the hospital for compensatory and punitive damages for lost wages and emotional distress. Amanda Hoover "Hospital Fired Gay Man for Wearing Makeup, Lawsuit Claims," (Dec. 1, 2017).

Commentary and Checklist

The spark for the liability in the above matter was the employee’s appearance and grooming.

Appearance and grooming policies are important to some family employers.  If you want a dress or grooming policy, make sure that it is work related; applied uniformly; and is fair to all staff. It is important to always ask for advice from counsel before terminating an employee for his or her appearance or grooming.

If your anti-harassment and discrimination policies conflict with your appearance and grooming policies, you should favor the anti-harassment and discrimination policies.

Here are some tips to avoid discriminating against staff based on their appearance:

  • Offer employment opportunities and benefits equally to all qualified staff based on merit, not on appearance.
  • Educate managers to avoid making disparaging remarks about the appearance of staff members, and to report any such comments they overhear through the appropriate harassment reporting channels.
  • Do not enforce rules or standards of appearance at a different level for one group of staff over another.
  • Never ask staff to change his or her appearance unless a legitimate, fair and objective business reason exists.
  • Determine if the staff member's appearance or clothing is related to a disability and, if it is, make all reasonable accommodations for the staff member.
  • Avoid making hasty employment decisions based on appearance without considering all protected classes and consulting with your attorney.
  • Educate managers and supervisors on the sensitive nature of terminating staff because of appearance.
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