By Sheryl Smolkin
Read this article and comments at Moneyville.ca
Michigan waitresses Cassandra Marie Smith and Leanne Convey sued their employer Hooters when they were fired after being placed on “30 day weight probation.” The case has gone to arbitration.
The basis for their claim is a Michigan law that specifically prohibits discrimination based on weight. The law was passed in 1976 as part of a broader law that also forbids discrimination based on age and height after prospective police officers and firefighters complained that they were denied jobs because of unfair height standards that favoured men.
Michigan is the only U.S. state that prohibits discrimination based on weight. However, six cities – San Francisco and Santa Cruz California; Birmingham, New York; Madison, Wisconsin; Washington D.C. and Urbana, Ill. — have adopted their own weight discrimination laws.
In Ontario human rights legislation protects employees based on a number of designated grounds, including disability, age, race, sex and religion. However, there is nothing to stop employers who don’t hire you, or fire you because you are fat.
I suppose extreme obesity could be considered a disability. But at 132 pounds and 5”8,” Smith would have a great deal of trouble convincing me or the Human Rights Tribunal that she is either obese or disabled.
Of course Ontario employees who are wrongfully dismissed for any reason have much better protection than U.S. workers who can be hired and fired at will. But if you can’t get the job to start with because a prospective employer doesn’t like your bra size, your big ears or the size of your nose, you probably have little recourse.
A June 2010 Newsweek poll confirmed appearance does matter when you are job hunting. Fifty-seven percent of the 202 hiring managers surveyed said that qualified but unattractive candidates are likely to have a harder time landing a job, while more than half advised candidates to spend as much time and money on “making sure they look attractive” as on perfecting a résumé.
Asked to rank employee attributes in order of importance, meanwhile, managers placed looks above education: of nine character traits, it came in third, below experience (No. 1) and confidence (No. 2) but above “where a candidate went to school” (No. 4).
But don’t quit school or schedule a nose job yet. The fact is that “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder” and even if you didn’t make the cut for a job or got fired because of your appearance, few employers are as blatant as Hooters. You’d probably never know for sure why you were turned down.
It is not unreasonable to expect that employees and prospective employees be well-groomed and personable. But unless there is a genuine occupational requirement, a person’s weight or other physical attributes should never be a deciding factor when a manger is hiring, promoting or firing an employee.
I don’t know what the solution is, but with the “cult of beauty” being reinforced by a 24/7 media onslaught, I’m not sure we can solve the problem by passing more legislation. Perhaps a public education program might encourage all of us to look beyond superficial physical traits when dealing with others both at home and at the office.