Why lawsuits based on looks discrimination—even good ones—are a bad idea.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
June 11 2010 5:33 PM

Too Sexy for My Bosses

Why lawsuits based on looks discrimination—even good ones—are a bad idea.

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In the end, dress and grooming codes are just another job requirement—no different from rules about how employees should greet and interact with customers—and they should be evaluated as such. And explicit requirements may be better for many employees than the alternatives. In many workplaces no one tells you what to wear, but inappropriate attire is taken as a symptom of more serious flaws: poor judgment, vulgar taste, or bad upbringing. A dress code or a boss who offers explicit wardrobe guidance can be an egalitarian counterweight to the subtle class biases that inappropriate clothing choices would otherwise trigger.

It's a sign of how informal we've become as a society that people think the imposition of an office dress code is a civil rights violation. Perhaps a generation used to being evaluated on the ideas in their essays but not on grammar or exposition can be forgiven for thinking that expectations about style and appearance are not only superficial but outdated. But surely the triumph of Apple over Microsoft has put to rest the idea that the CPU is always more important than the interface. It's tempting to think of civil rights against "appearance discrimination" as a victory of liberty and equality over oppressive conformism. Opposing judgments based on appearance suggests a refined sensibility, attuned to deeper and higher concerns, and it also fits nicely with the increasing informality of modern culture—the era of "business casual" and the barefoot wedding.

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But proposals to ban appearance discrimination reflect a patrician sensibility of their own: a conviction that supposedly objective merits, raw intelligence, and technical mastery—the values of the professor, the bohemian intellectual and the high-tech startup—should always trump "superficial" social virtues such as decorum and good taste. There's a troubling immodesty about the perfectionist quest to blind us all to appearances—a quest that would dismiss as bias so much of what many people consider a sign of professionalism, respect, and good form.

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Richard Thompson Ford teaches at Stanford Law School. His latest books are Rights Gone Wrong: How Law Corrupts the Struggle for Equality and Universal Rights Down to Earth.

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