Employer Branding Talent Acquisition

Recruiting: The Beautiful Backlash

In my last blog post, I wrote about the unfair advantages good-looking people experience in the workplace, and a new website looking to capitalize on them. There is plenty of data to support the fact that positive work attributes are more likely to be credited to the genetically gifted. However, an interesting counterpoint was recently raised with regard to looks-based hiring practices.

Earlier this month, the Iowa Supreme Court reaffirmed its December ruling that a dentist acted lawfully in firing a female assistant for being, well, just too darn sexy. Melissa Nelson (right), who is happily married and the mother of two young children, worked for dentist James Knight for over ten years. A year and a half before her firing, Knight mentioned to her that her clothing may be too tight or distracting for the workplace. About a year later, Nelson and Knight began exchanging text messages about work and personal matters. Soon after, Knight’s wife discovered the text messages and insisted he fire Nelson.

Knight later admitted that he feared his working relationship with Nelson would lead to an affair if he did not fire her. Nelson felt that she was the victim of gender discrimination. Court documents stated that Knight admitted Nelson was good at her job. How could she be fired for not doing anything wrong? But according to the Iowa Supreme Court, employers can fire employees they see as threats to their marriages, and that such firings do not count as illegal sex discrimination because they are motivated by feelings, not gender.

It would be a bold statement to profess that you are so good-looking that your beauty is a deterrent in the workplace. But this wouldn’t be the first time it has occurred. In 2009, Debrahlee Lorenzana (right) filed suit against Citibank, alleging that she was fired from the company because of her looks. Lorenzana’s lawsuit accused her employer of practicing a double-standard, whereby she was disciplined and eventually terminated for wearing low-cut blouses, pencil skirts and three-inch heels, yet other female employees were allowed to do the same without consequence because, in her words:

…they were short, overweight and didn’t draw attention.

Lorenzana was eventually fired from Citibank for disciplinary problems and poor performance. What followed was a media circus as she retained the legal services of high-profile feminist attorney Gloria Allred, whom she later accused of only taking the case for publicity, then dropping her as a client. Lorenzana claimed she was offered a settlement, but decided to pass because she wanted to “press on.” The case went to arbitration, and in 2012, Citibank stated that they did not enter into any kind of settlement or provide Lorenzana any payment.

The question at hand is whether reverse discrimination actually exists against good-looking people, or whether those who consider themselves good-looking simply perceive it that way? When a person is put in a difficult situation, it’s only natural for them to focus on the differentiating factor that separates them from their peers, and blame that factor as the reason they have been singled out. Sometimes the blame is justified, but sometimes it’s just a coincidence. In Melissa Nelson’s case, there is far less gray area. There is no debate that she was fired because of her looks. But was it justified? The Supreme Court says it was, because it was done to save her employer’s marriage. But in Debrahlee Lorenzana’s case, the lines seem to get blurred. Did her looks really play into it, or did her ego play a larger part? According to Citibank, her termination

was solely performance-based and not at all related to her appearance or attire.

Another interesting question to consider is how this type of reverse discrimination may play into the hiring practices of managers whose spouses share jealous traits with James Knight’s wife? If a hiring manager foresees trouble on the horizon stemming from hiring a good-looking candidate, he or she may decide to hire another less-qualified candidate in order to avoid inevitable arguments and marital struggles. Through no fault of their own, the better-looking candidate will be the one left unemployed, and in many cases will never know why.

While the argument remains strong that beautiful people enjoy more advantages than disadvantages in the workplace, for every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction. Recruiters, have you witnessed any instances of reverse discrimination against the terminally sexy?

RELATED: Recruiting the Beautiful People [ONLY!]

By John Feldmann

John Feldmann is a Senior Communications Specialist for Insperity in Houston, TX. With over a decade of marketing and employment branding experience in the recruiting and human resources industries, John specializes in employment- and HR-related content development for a variety of media types in order to communicate Insperity's brand to both business professionals and job seekers. Follow John on X @John_Feldmann.