Hooters Weight Discrimination Lawsuit and Retail Workplace Obesity

New Diversity, Hiring, Harassment, and Employment Law Questions About Obesity

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The media and blogosphere exploded in indignation when a Michigan Hooters waitress was told that her 132-pound body no longer met the appearance standards of a Hooters girl. This led to a weight discrimination lawsuit against the Hooters restaurant chain specifically, and sparked a heated debate about workplace obesity in retail businesses specifically.

Here's the question that nobody want to admit that they're asking...

When you make a decision to voluntarily work for a company that openly objectifies women to gain market share and enhance profits, aren't you agreeing to be part of the objectification? And why would you be shocked or offended, then, when that same company deems your appearance to be insufficiently objectifiable, and therefore, bad for business?

The Michigan Hooters waitress claims that she had received nothing but positive ratings for customer service and teamwork and that should be enough for her to retain her position. Although I haven't conducted a formal research study with Hooters customers, I am confident that they would not identify customer service and teamwork as the primary reasons for their Hooters patronage. Good, bad, right, or wrong, Hooters is what Hooters is.

Does Hooters, or any retail organization, have the right to develop its identity in the marketplace and to require employees to be in alignment with that identity?

NEXT:  Beauty, Height, Intelligence, Class and Financial Discrimination >>

Hooters, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Whole Foods have all faced public opinion and legal consequences for alleged weight and/or obesity discrimination against employees.  Are overweight and obese applicants and employees part of a legitimate protected class?  And what kind of new discrimination laws related to hiring and firing are in store for the U.S. retail industry

The larger issue here is where we draw the line in telling any company who they must consider as a viable employee.

A study published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences concluded that attractive people received more offers and better pay than unattractive people. Should there be "ugly" discrimination laws?

Adrien Cohen, the author of "The Tall Book" found that tall people are 90% more likely to become CEOS at Fortune 500 companies. Cohen also asserts in the book that tall people make $789 more per inch per year than their shorter co-workers. Should there be height discrimination laws too?

According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 60% of private companies check credit histories and use credit scores to make hiring decisions, even if the open position has no money-handling or fiduciary responsibilities. Should there be financial discrimination laws too?

Should an employer be allowed to favor an Ivy League education over a state school or is that class discrimination? Is it fair to favor a high GPA or is that intelligence discrimination?

With absolutely everything else being equal, does an employer have the right to choose a better groomed employee or is that fashion discrimination? Can you not legally turn down applicants with tattoos or piercings, or is that considered to be individuality discrimination?

The truth of the matter is that the only people in the U.S. who walk into an interview without a legitimate claim to some sort of discrimination are tall, good-looking, wealthy, Ivy League-educated white men dressed in Armani who, according to The Tall Book, probably aren't too concerned when they get turned down for any job because they know they are predestined to be running some company some day.

NEXT: Addiction and Employers' Hiring Rights >>

An employer wouldn't be taken to task for not hiring someone who walked into their office under the influence of alcohol or drugs. They wouldn't legally be required to hire someone who can't make it through an interview without smoking or dipping snuff. Should an employer have the right to look at an obese person and acknowledge a food addiction as well?

Is it right to assume that everyone who is overweight is a food addict?

Probably not. But with all other qualifications, education, and personalities being equal, is it unreasonable for an employer to err on the side of caution and hire the person who exhibits no signs of addiction at all?

If we keep identifying groups and keep adding discrimination laws to the books that "protect" those groups, then we are moving away from employers' rights to choose, and moving towards all hiring decisions being made in a court of law. Is it really in everyone's best interest to whittle away an employer's right to use their own discretion and best judgment when making hiring decisions? And even if their best judgment is wrong, should companies have the right to be wrong if they're the ones paying the price for their own mistakes?

Even though Title VII has been in place for over 45 years, it hasn't eliminated people's claims that they've been discriminated against in the workplace.

In 2008, the number of charges filed for race, gender, and age discrimination rose dramatically and stayed at that same high level in 2009. In those two years of massive layoffs and chronic unemployment, it's understandable that people would look for reasons why they are jobless. Considering the large number of discrimination laws that exist, just about anybody can find one to use.

But is that really the reason why someone is unemployed or underemployed or is it just the excuse?

More Lawsuits and Judgments in the U.S. Retail Industry >>

Ultimately, it is always the challenge and the responsibility of applicants to convince a hiring manager that they are the absolute best person for the job. If something about you gives a potential employer an easy reason to put you in the "no" stack of resumes, then it is up to you to address it and convince the hiring manager that a seeming liability is an asset, or at least nothing to be concerned about.

With so many candidates to choose from for every open position these days, the hiring process is starting to resemble a TV reality competition. Sometimes it's obvious who deserves to be voted off. Sometimes there's no good reason, but somebody's got to be eliminated anyway. Job seekers who give no easy reasons to be eliminated from the hiring process will like be the ones who "survive" to get the jobs.

The painful truth, however, is that not every applicant is right for every position. That's a tough fact to accept in an uber competitive job market, but it's true. There is not a hidden discrimination agenda behind every employment rejection these days, and it would be inappropriate to start drafting more discrimination laws based on that assumption.

In the case of the (not-so) hefty Hooters girl, it's unlikely that any landmark weight discrimination judgments will be made. It just so happens that Michigan is the only state in the U.S. with a specific weight discrimination law. San Francisco, Santa Cruz and the District of Columbia also have weight discrimination laws where overweight and obese people know for certain that they are playing on a level employment field.

At this point there are more questions than answers surrounding the issue of weight discrimination, and it's going to take more court rulings to know just where the boundaries of weight in the workplace will be established. Until then, retail leaders and hiring managers can learn everything they need to know about overcoming weight discrimination in the workplace in my Ultimate Embracing Diversity For Retail Managers Course.

Here is a synopsis of that course...

Treat everyone as valued and uniquely valuable individual human beings. The end.

In fact,rather than find out what the court had to say about it,  Hooters settled the lose-it-or-leave-it case  filed by the Michigan waitress in arbitration.  After suffering a brand image bruising caused by the Undercover Boss "reindeer game" incident, Hooters didn't really need to give Americans another highly publicized reason to be hated.