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Beware of stereotyping employees!

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As reported on Work Place Prof Blog, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers Minnesota) issued an interesting opinion in a sex stereotyping/appearance case this week. In Lewis v. Heartland Inns, the court found that the plaintiff had presented enough evidence to suggest that she was fired for not conforming to stereotypes about how women should dress and look.

The plaintiff, Brenna Lewis, worked as a desk clerk position at the Heartland Inns in Waterloo, Iowa.  She performed well and received raises, customer compliments, and good feedback from her immediate supervisors. The problem arose when Lewis was moved to a day shift position, and the Director of Operations (who is also female) saw her for the first time.  Lewis prefers to wear loose fitting clothing, including men’s button down shirts and slacks. She avoids makeup and wore her hair short at the time. Lewis has been mistaken for a male and referred to as “tomboyish.” The DO told Lewis’ supervisor that she was not sure Lewis was a “good fit” for the front desk.  The DO followed up a few days later and again raised the subject of Lewis’ appearance, characterizing it as “an Ellen DeGeneres kind of look.”

The DO expressed the belief that Heartland “took two steps back” when Lewis replaced an employee who dressed in a more stereotypical feminine manner. The DO had previously boasted about the appearance of women staff members, and had indicated that Heartland staff should be “pretty,” a quality she considered especially important for women working at the front desk. She also had advised a hotel manager not to hire a particular applicant because she was not pretty enough.

The DO ordered Lewis’ supervisor to put her back on the night shift, but the supervisor refused because Lewis had been doing such a good job. The DO forced that Supervisor to resign, and then told Lewis that she would have to undergo a second interview for the position she held, using new video equipment which had been installed to ensure that clerks had the appropriate appearance. 

At the second interview, Lewis complained the appearance-related comments, and the DO forced Lewis to critique some recent company policies. When she was fired, the company stated that it was because of her behavior during this interview and “hostility” to recent policies.  Lewis sued for sex discrimination and retaliation.

The court found that there was evidence that sex stereotyping was the real reason for Lewis’ termination, as well as retaliation for her complaining about the discrimination.  “An employer who discriminates against women because they do not wear dresses or makeup, is engaging in sex discrimination because the discrimination would not occur but for the victim’s sex.”  According to the Court, companies may not base employment decisions on sex stereotypes, just as an airline cannot lawfully hire as flight attendants only young, attractive, “charming” women “dressed in high boots and hot-pants.” 

The lesson to employers: beware of making employment decisions based on stereotypes, especially those that are linked to an employee’s gender.  Don’t compare your employees to Ellen  DeGeneres.  And don’t try to hide your less attractive employees on the night shift!


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