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How Comments About Your Dress and Appearance at Work May Constitute Sex Discrimination in New Jersey

Most of us are graded at work on our outward appearance, whether that grading takes place in a spoken or unspoken manner, and whether we realize it or not. Sometimes, this is quite appropriate, such as requiring certain vestiges of formality in dress and appearance at certain professional office workplaces. Other times, though, it is decidedly not. If you find yourself on the receiving end of inappropriate comments at work that relate to your appearance, those comments may be more than offensive… they may be the basis of a valid claim for sex discrimination. When that happens to you, contact a knowledgeable New Jersey employment discrimination attorney to discuss your situation in full detail.

So, what can “inappropriate” look like? Consider this recent case from federal court as an example. J.P., the employee, was a patient coordinator for a plastic surgery medical surgery practice. J.P. was also a woman who had to put up with a lot of demeaning workplace comments related to her appearance and the appearances of her colleagues, according to her lawsuit.

J.P.’s supervisor allegedly criticized the darkness of her skin (“you look like a minority”), her lips (looking “Amazon”) and her carriage (“like [someone] in a ‘wet t-shirt contest’”). The supervisor also criticized J.P.’s colleagues as too “frumpy” and one woman as “too ugly” to begin work at the practice until she had “work done.”

In late 2016, J.P. was terminated, triggering the lawsuit.

As the federal judge assigned to the case pointed out, comments regarding “a woman’s appearance” can be proof of sex discrimination if those comments “by their very nature apply only to women.” Additionally, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals (which is the federal appeals court whose decisions directly impact federal cases in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware) has stated in the past that gender stereotyping is “a form of discrimination because of sex.”

So, whether your supervisor criticized you for not looking feminine enough (such as a hotel requiring female front desk staff be “pretty” or have a “Midwestern girl look”) or for looking feminine but not conforming to the supervisor’s idea of what ideal female appearance should be (such as the criticisms of J.P.’s lips, her high-heeled shoes or carrying herself like someone in a wet t-shirt contest), when the critique is based solely within the confines of you versus other female colleagues or you versus hypothetical other women, then that is potentially discrimination because of sex.

Gender stereotyping at work is also impermissible under New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination. So, if a New Jersey woman employee encountered criticisms like the hotel worker in the above example, that might be a violation of federal and state law.

Proof of actual harm and causation are also keys to success

If you are pursuing a sex discrimination claim based upon comments made in relation to your appearance, it is important to recognize a few things. Just having persuasive proof that the offensive comments occurred, and that they were things that, by their very nature, applied only to women, isn’t enough. Two of the other things your case absolutely must have are (1) proof that you suffered some sort of adverse employment action and (2) proof that the adverse action was connected to that sex-based discriminatory bias.

J.P.’s case had all those necessary pieces. Obviously, being terminated is an adverse employment action. (Things like demotions, reductions in hours and reductions in benefits can be, as well.)

The key, then, for J.P. was to tie the termination to the discriminatory bias. Her case had that. Among her assertions, one was that, in the termination meeting where the employer accused J.P. of falsely calling in sick to work, the supervisor said, “well you looked fine walking around in your high heels.” That, according to the court, showed that the supervisor “could not help but bring up [J.P.’s] physical appearance,” even in a termination meeting. That, the judge wrote, was sufficient basis for an argument that the firing was related to J.P.’s appearance, not lying about her absence from work.

All of us want to achieve success at work based upon the high quality of our work, not the quality of our physical appearance. When you’re being assessed at work based on the latter, and that appearance-based evaluation is something that applies only to women, then you may have been the victim of illegal sex discrimination. When it comes time to pursue your case in the legal system, count on the experienced sex discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates to help. Our attorneys have helped many women – and men – who’ve been harmed by sex discrimination at work, and we are here to get to work for you. Contact us online or at (609) 436-9087 today to set up a free and confidential consultation to discuss how we can help.

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