Workplace discrimination up as economy worsens

The economy is down and, if they haven’t already done so, most businesses are looking for ways to trim their budgets. Though some cutbacks are necessary, new research suggests that this is not the time to pull your diversity programs.

Diversity programs are more important now than ever before, according to a new study by Eden King, assistant professor of psychology at George Mason University. King’s research found that during an economic downturn workplace discrimination tends to increase.

Additionally, those in hiring positions may be less likely to hire a minority job applicant during difficult economic times. Competition for fewer jobs and resources often forces minority groups to the outside, King says.

“The reality is, diversity programs and disadvantaged groups may be the first to go in times of economic uncertainty,” says King. “This causes real problems for people of socially disadvantaged groups.”

As part of their study, King and her team of researchers found that when white women and men were told that the economy might decline and were then asked to evaluate four equally qualified job candidates, they favored the white male candidate. When the group was told that the economy may be on an upswing, they chose the female Hispanic candidate.

"In good economic times, people know they are supposed to support diversity and will tend to hire a minority candidate to get affirmative action points," says King. "But when times are tough, people tend to look out for their own group and isolate outsiders, and that's when discrimination can begin to rear its ugly head."

King noted that managers and human resource professionals should approach prejudice in today’s unstable workplace with caution.

"They need to understand that the short-term solution of cutting diversity programs might ultimately end up costing them even more in the long-run."


How could the swine flu outbreak affect U.S. workplaces?

Yesterday, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano held a press conference on swine flu and touched on how the outbreak may affect the American workplace.

Repeating President Obama’s message, Napolitano reminded the audience that “swine flu is a cause for concern, but not a cause for alarm. We are simply in preparation mode. We do not yet know how widespread this flu will be within the United States. So we continue to move aggressively to prepare.”

Napolitano asked that private employers assist the federal and state governments in protecting their workers.
“We are reaching out to the private sector to make sure that they are preparing and to inform them of the latest actions we are taking. It's important that they be thinking ahead about what they would do should this erupt into a full-fledged pandemic, which it has not yet, by the way,” she said.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the federal government are stressing that people use common sense right now to reduce the impact that any flu, including swine flu, may have on the U.S. public.

The CDC is advising the public to take these everyday actions to stay healthy:
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when sneezing or coughing. Dispose of the tissue immediately after you use it.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after you cough or sneeze. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are also effective.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth to avoid spreading germs.
  • Avoid close contact with sick people.
  • If you feel ill, stay home from work or school and limit contact with others to avoid spreading the flu.
The CDC and HHS have also put together a business pandemic influenza planning checklist that companies can use to prepare for a potential flu outbreak and other emergencies.

These simple measures can “materially improve” the chances of swine flu becoming a full-fledged pandemic, said Napolitano.

“I mean, the normal tendency is, you know, we have a lot of Type A personalities and people want to go, keep working, and—we're saying don't do that if you believe realistically that you have the flu. If you don't know but you show some of the symptoms, contact your doctor. ”

“Everybody has a role to play here. It's our function to make sure that what the government is doing is coordinated, that we are thinking in advance of the problem,” she said. “But, again, government cannot do this alone. We all have an important part to play.”

Currently, there are 64 confirmed cases of swine flu in the U.S., including 45 in New York City, according to the CDC. The swine flu outbreak in Mexico is suspected in 152 deaths and more than 1,600 illnesses, according to the Mexican health minister.

As doctors try to understand and bring the swine flu outbreak under control, many people are nervous that the virus will continue to spread. It also leaves some important questions up for discussion:
  • What are the implications for business and HR policies?
  • Is preventing/identifying swine flu a workplace training need yet with so few cases in the U.S. and all mild?
  • Will it affect hiring/business expansion plans if the spreading swine flu could further hurt the U.S. economy?

What do you think? Is it time for businesses to start taking action? Leave a comment and let us know.

Fight the flu at work by raising awareness of sanitary procedures with these helpful flu prevention solutions.

Download "Flu in the Workplace," a free white paper on how to keep employees safe and get a better understanding of your rights as an employer.

New EEOC best practices against caregiver discrimination

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently released an online guide covering employer best practices for workers with caregiving responsibilities.

Along with advice on avoiding discrimination against caregivers the document also provides examples of best practices employers can adopt that go beyond federal non-discrimination requirements to reduce the chance of EEO violations.

This most recent guide supplements a 2007 document on unlawful disparate treatment of employees with caregiving responsibilities. The new EEOC guide outlines added suggestions for employers including suggested language for a written EEO policy addressing caregiver protection and best practices in recruitment, hiring, promotion and conditions and terms of employment.

Among the best practices explained in the new document, the EEOC encourages employers to:

  • Train managers and supervisors on their legal responsibilities regarding employees with caregiving responsibilities under federal regulations including the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Equal Pay Act, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
  • Develop, distribute and enforce a strong EEO policy that clearly explains examples of discriminatory behavior against caregivers.
  • Respond to caregiver discrimination complaints efficiently and effectively.
  • Identify and remove barriers to re-entry for individuals who have taken leaves of absence due to caregiving responsibilities or other personal reasons.
  • Encourage employees to request flexible work arrangements that allow them to balance work and personal responsibilities.
  • Monitor compensation practices and performance appraisal systems for patterns of potential discrimination against caregivers.

Employee training is your first line of defense to prevent employment discrimination and minimize legal action. Protect your company from lawsuits by educating your employees on their responsibilities when it comes to discrimination and harassment in the workplace.

Without the proper training, employees may be engaging in or condoning unacceptable behavior without even knowing it. The Harassment-Free Workplace -- Take Control is a comprehensive training program that teaches workers how to take responsibility for their own actions. Prevent harassment and protect your business with more tools from G.Neil.

What if your employees were volunteers?

There are thousands of ideas out there on how to improve employee performance without having to spend a dime, but “sometimes incentive and motivation programs aren’t necessary.”

That’s the message from Paul Hebert at Incentive Intelligence, ironically a blog dedicated to aligning behaviors and goals through motivation, rewards and recognition.

Last week, Hebert proposed an experiment that any manager, supervisor and coworker can try, that simply involves asking yourself one question:

“What would you do different if everyone you relied on for your business success was a volunteer?”

Volunteers are tied to their work with passion, not pay. They’re able to walk out of an organization whenever they please because they’re working because they want to, not because they have to.

Looking at your employees as volunteers forces you to identify their passion and discover why they’re working at your organization. Whatever their passion or reason for working, managers should create a mission and set goals that are aligned with employees’ passion.

“Managing volunteers means valuing contribution and working to match desire to function within the team to achieve the stated mission. Managing volunteers isn't about directing effort as much as it is about allowing effort to find it's best path.”

Hebert suggests that every manager ask themselves - “What would I do different if all my staff could just walk out tomorrow?”

Wellness programs stay strong despite recession

Despite the recession, companies continue to add wellness and health-management programs to reduce costs while encouraging employees to improve their physical health.

The latest Watson Wyatt/National Business Group on Health survey discovered that companies are still adopting employee wellness programs. The survey results also revealed that many companies improved employee participation rates by offering workers financial incentives.

Survey results show how companies increased the availability of various wellness programs:

  • 58% of companies offer lifestyle improvement programs, up from 43% in 2007
  • 56% offer health coaches, up from 44% in 2007
  • 52% offer weight-management programs, up from 42% in 2007
  • 80% offer health-risk appraisals, up from 72% in 2007

Companies that encouraged employees to participate in wellness programs by offering financial incentives reported significantly higher participation rates, according to survey results. Only 40% of companies reported that less than 5% of their workforce participated in weight-management programs.

"Employers continue to see gains from promoting wellness and health management initiatives," said Scott Keyes, senior group and health-care consultant at Watson Wyatt. "Effective financial incentives are one of the keys to encouraging worker participation in these programs — an effort that not only improves the health of workers but also helps reduce costs."

The survey also found that motivating employees with financial incentives significantly increased participation rates. Currently, 61% of employers offer incentives for health-risk appraisals and many employers are also offering incentives for smoking cessation and weight management programs.

Using financial incentives between $51 and $100 have been successful in encouraging employees to participate in smoking cessation programs, weight-management programs, and encourage employees to receive biometric screenings, according to the results.

"The relationship between the amount of the incentive and the level of program participation among employees is strong," said Sherri Potter, senior group and health-care consultant at Watson Wyatt. "A properly structured incentive program does much more than protect investments in health management; it creates a healthier and more productive workforce."

For more information on employee wellness programs and employee health, read these past posts:

Obesity linked to more expensive workers’ comp claims

HR survey reveals top green business practices

New research suggests exercise makes you smarter

Economic stress impacts employee health, productivity

How to beat stress in the workplace


Obama delays E-Verify requirement

President Obama has delayed the effective date of a new rule that would require government contractors to verify the immigration status of their employees using the federal government’s E-Verify electronic employment eligibility verification system. The new effective date is June 30, 2009.

E-Verify is the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ (USCIS) system that federal contractors would be required to use to verify the eligibility status of new hires and existing employees to work in the U.S.

Obama’s administration pushed back implementation of the new E-Verify rule in order to complete an administration review of the requirement, which is also the subject of a federal lawsuit, according to a Federal Register notice published Friday.

This extension will mark the third delay in the effective date of the requirement, which was originally scheduled to take effect January 15, 2009.

Domino’s employees fired, charged after “gross” video goes viral

On Monday, two Domino's Pizza employees posted videos on the Internet that resulted in their current unemployment, and also managed to create a disastrous PR storm for their former employer.

The two Domino's Pizza employees posted videos on the Internet showing themselves violating various health-code standards while preparing food for delivery. Since their video became a hit on YouTube, the employees have been charged with felonies for delivering prohibited foods.

A statement on the company’s corporate website apologizes for the unacceptable actions of their former employees and asks that customers continue their support, despite this embarrassment.

“The opportunities and freedom of the Internet is wonderful,” the statement reads. “But it also comes with the risk of anyone with a camera and an Internet link to cause a lot of damage, as in this case, where a couple of individuals suddenly overshadow the hard work performed by the 125,000 men and women working for Domino’s across the nation and in 60 countries around the world.” (Workforce Management)

Company President Patrick Doyle has also posted a video of his own in response to the “gross” video created by his former employees. Domino’s spokesman Tim McIntyre said the company is looking into what can be done to prevent anything like this from happening in the future, but says there’s only so much the Domino’s can do.

"You can be the safest driver, you know," McIntyre said. "But there's going to be that Friday night someone's drunk and comes from out of nowhere. You can do the best you can, but there's going to be the equivalent of that drunk driver that hits the innocent victim." (Advertising Age)

The food safety issues involved in this case can be kept under control with a combination of training, policy enforcement and complying with regular food safety inspections. But how can a company control what employees are saying about them online?

It’s impossible for a company to fully control what an employee is going to say or do on the Internet in regards to their employer. What companies can do is set standards and clear policies outlining responsible online behavior within the office and when an employee discusses the company on their own time.

Major companies including the BBC, Sun Microsystems and IBM have written social media guidelines for employees to help manage the risk that accompanies these online conversations. Each of these companies has a set of guidelines clearly posted on its website and serve as great examples when developing your own social media policies.

Policies will differ from company to company, but it’s important to have a clear set of standards that everyone in the organization can follow. Remember to run your social media policy through the legal department before distributing anything to employees. Finish the process with employee training that explains the company’s policy and how to act responsibly when talking about their employer online.

Like Domino’s spokesman said, “the opportunities and freedom of the Internet is wonderful,” but some employees may need help understanding the responsibility that comes along with talking about their employer online.

Do you think having a social media policy could have helped Domino's in the company's current situation? Does your organization train employees on responsible Internet use? Leave a comment and let us know.

ADA questions arise after new hire is found having conversations with herself

What do you do when an otherwise perfect new employee starts acting a little “off” after only a few months on the job?

Here’s the situation: A good friend, we’ll call her “Jane,” was hiring for an entry-level sales position about a year ago. She interviewed a candidate who was friendly, articulate, had a steady work history and seemed to be perfect for the job.

After a few weeks of training, employees in her training class and the instructor expressed some concern that the individual was slightly “off.” No one could pinpoint exactly what was wrong, so she remained in training and on course for employment.

About six months later, HR began receiving complaints about the new employee’s strange behavior. Among the various complaints, she had been seen talking to herself in the hallways and break room. Other complaints explained how she was spending an excessive amount of time in the bathroom, having hour-long conversations with herself in the mirror.

Jane contacted Employee Health and the employee was removed from the workplace after going through a complete mental health evaluation.

Though the situation was rather strange and unfortunate, it also brought up some legitimate legal concerns, specifically regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA):

  • What are the ADA consequences if you hired someone and then discovered this behavior on day two? Can you dismiss them?
  • Do ADA accommodation requirements come into play? Is there a time frame? Or is it from the moment of hire? What about before the hire?
  • If she was otherwise best qualified, can you refuse to hire solely based upon her mental illness?

We ran Jane’s situation and our ADA accommodation questions by the G.Neil legal team to get a better understanding. Generally speaking, here’s what employers should know:

The ADA makes it unlawful to discriminate in employment against a qualified individual with a disability. To be protected from employment discrimination under the ADA, the employee must be disabled (as defined by the ADA) and qualified to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodation. Disabilities recognized by the ADA may be mental or physical.

Qualified means two things - first the employee must satisfy your requirements for the job, such as education, employment experience, skills or licenses. Second, the applicant or employee must be able to perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation.

If the disabled employee is considered disabled as defined by the ADA and can perform the essential functions of the job with/without a reasonable accommodation, the employee is protected under the ADA and cannot be terminated or not hired solely because of his/her disability.

Reasonable accommodations can include nearly anything, depending on the individual's disability. Examples of common accommodations include:

  • Making existing facilities readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities
  • Job restructuring or reassignment to a vacant position
  • Acquiring or modifying equipment or devices
  • Adjusting or modifying examinations, training or policies
  • Providing qualified readers or interpreters
  • Modified work schedules or leaves of absence

Employers are not required to provide an accommodation that would cause the business an "undue hardship." Undue hardships usually occur when an accommodation would cost too much (based on the company's resources) or would substantially interfere with business operations. This is a legal determination that must be made on a case-by-case basis by the company human resources department and/or legal counsel.

An individual with a disability may request a reasonable accommodation at any time during the application process or during the period of employment. The individual does not have to mention the ADA or use any "trigger" words like "reasonable accommodation" to begin the process. Instead, he or she only has to give you enough information to alert you to the fact that he or she needs an adjustment because of a medical condition.

Requests do not need to be in writing or take any particular form; however, you should have individuals make the request in writing so that the information is documented for future use.

Generally, it is the disabled individual's responsibility to alert you to the need for any accommodation. You are not required to accommodate any disability you do not know about. However, you may initiate the accommodation process if you have noticed a change in the ability of a person with a known disability to perform the job.

The definition of disability was expanded under the new Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act (ADAAA). G.Neil’s updated ADA Facts Sheet is a simple resource to help explain the most recent ADA changes, the process for requesting accommodation, what qualifies as reasonable and more. The ADAAA went into effect on January 1, 2009, read more on how the changes affect your business.

What would you have done in Jane’s situation? Are there any other legal issues that would affect your decision?

Use sexual harassment training as prevention, not punishment

Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores, Inc. will pay $255,000 to settle a sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency announced Thursday April, 9.

Cracker Barrel, based out of Lebanon, Tenn., had allegedly turned a blind eye to repeated sexual harassment incidents at its Cedar Bluff, Tenn. store location. The EEOC lawsuit claims that male managers and other employees made repeated and unwanted sexual jokes and lewd remarks to women.

When the women complained about the sexual harassment to the managers and made calls to Cracker Barrel’s compliant line, the company failed to take any action to stop the harassment.

The company failed to take any action to stop the harassment, even after the women complained about it to managers and to the company’s complaint line, according to the lawsuit.

Under the terms of the settlement, Cracker Barrel must: 

  • Modify its policies and practices regarding the investigation of sexual harassment claims,
  • Conduct annual training on sexual harassment and retaliation for all employees for a period of three years
  • Maintain and report complaints of harassment received for three years
  • Post the company’s sexual harassment policy and a statement it will investigate anonymous claims of sexual harassment.

Instead of having sexual harassment training be a punishment for your organization, make it a part of your company culture. Empower every employee with the promise that every sexual harassment claim will be taken seriously and that each case will be fully investigated.

Incorporate sexual harassment training into an overall harassment prevention program at your organization to ensure every employee, including managers and supervisors, know how to recognize and prevent harassing behavior.

Unfortunately, many of your employees may be engaging in or condoning sexual harassment without even realizing it. G.Neil’s Harassment-Free Workplace -- Take Control training program helps employees understand how they can “pause, fast forward, rewind and stop” to take responsibility for their own actions.

Office etiquette: Tips for “smart” phone use

Business etiquette tells us that answering a cell phone call during a meeting is something highly frowned upon. But what does business etiquette have to say about emails, texts and tweets?

Unfortunately, many people don’t realize that answering an email on your Blackberry or iPhone during a meeting can be just as rude as answering a call.

The chances that you’ll find someone in your office with a cell phone that is simply a phone have become quite slim these days. Along with calling, most of the cell phones on the market also have ability to text, email, tweet and instant message.

Because of the wide-range of tools these smartphones provide, it can be hard for some people to ever take them out of their pocket. For many of the mobile addicts out there, a review of some general business etiquette tips are in order. 

The following tips can help any business-etiquette offender learn how to be more well-mannered:

  • Ask yourself: Is it really urgent? Most of the time, a call or email can wait until you’re out of a meeting or finished with an important task. If it isn’t urgent, let it go and check it later. If it is urgent, politely excuse yourself from the room and handle it quickly.

  • Don’t touch it. Even if you’re using the phone to take notes during the meeting, your colleagues may assume that you’re texting a friend or playing a game. Simply looking at your phone during a meeting causes people to wonder what you’re up to and diverts their attention away from the presenter.

  • Keep it off the table. Whether you’re in a conference room or a restaurant, it’s best to keep your phone off of the table. Keeping it in plain view shows to the people around you that they’re less important than what’s on your phone.

  • Lose it. If you find that you can’t get through a meeting or meal without constantly checking for a new message, lose it. Leave your phone at your desk and eliminate the temptation.

  • Post a sign. Some people need a clear sign that using their cell phone in certain areas of the office is not allowed. Post a “No Cell Phone Sign” to encourage people to silence or turn off their cell phones.


Company faces serious OSHA violations and fines, third year in a row

Neglectful businesses that take safety shortcuts and fail to protect employees can bet that they will soon find themselves subject to strict Occupational Safety and Health Association (OSHA) investigations and owing steep penalty fines.

At most cases, one negative OSHA inspection is all it takes to turn a company’s poor safety standards around. For some, like 4 Brothers Stucco Co., the third time’s a charm.

OSHA has proposed $118,650 in fines against the Cleveland, Tenn.-based 4 Brothers for 15 alleged repeat violations of safety standards, making this citation the third in three consecutive years for the stucco contractor.

The latest inspection discovered employees exposed to falls of up to 22 feet when working on scaffolding, in an aerial lift and on the roof of a worksite. OSHA also identified electrical, overhead and chemical hazard communication (HAZCOM) weaknesses at the worksite.

"These sizable fines reflect both the seriousness and recurring nature of several of the conditions cited here," said C. William Freeman III, OSHA's area director in Hartford, Conn. "Keep in mind that falls are the number one killer in construction work and can occur in an instant. Be it a scaffold, an aerial lift, or a roof, proper and effective fall protection must be in place and in use at all times."

The latest inspection resulted in six repeat citations for violations ranging from no fall protection for employees in an aerial lift, to workers not wearing helmets and employees not trained to recognize scaffold hazards. Similar violations were also found in 2007 and 2008.

OSHA issues serious violations in instances where death or serious physical harm could result, and the employer knew or should have known about the danger.

It’s most important to note that out of the latest set of nine serious citations 4 Brothers received included “lack of a hazard communication program, training, material safety data sheets, and protective gloves for employees working with cement and hazardous chemicals.”

There’s an alarming trend emerging as the economy suffers that has more businesses including necessary OSHA safety training in their budget cuts. It may seem like cutting safety training could help some companies save money, but it will only put more workers at risk for serious injury and death, leading to increased OSHA fines, workers’ compensation claims and wrongful injury lawsuits.

With the total cost of work-related injuries in the U.S. is more than $50 billion annually, it should be a clear sign that cutting workplace safety corners, especially employee safety training, puts the success of your business in serious danger.

As our country continues to work through this recession, the demand for cost-effective safety training has never been higher. G.Neil is answering that call with affordable safety training products that take the guesswork out of OSHA compliance and help keep your employees safe from workplace hazards.

Employees hit the road for National Start! Walking Day, tomorrow April 8

Thousands of Americans will bring along a pair of sneakers to work tomorrow and embark on a new journey to fitness that starts with one 30-minute walk.

The initiative is part of the American Heart Association’s National Start! Walking Day, a nation-wide effort to get more people of all physical ability levels on the path to wellness.

The American Heart Association chose walking as the main activity in their program because it’s the most accessible, affordable and successful of any type of exercise routine.

"With over 66 percent of Americans considered overweight and obese and nearly 70 percent of the population not engaging in regular light to moderate physical activity five times a week or vigorous activity three or more times per week, we realized there was a dire need to incorporate more walking into people's daily routines," said Timothy Gardner, M.D., American Heart Association president. "Just a few extra steps each day is a simple and easy way to take an active role in maintaining a significantly healthier life."

Research has proven that walking programs have the lowest dropout rate of any physical activity and are the most effective method to get employees to exercise during the workday without hurting productivity, according the the American College of Sports Medicine.

“It’s good business to have physically fit workers,” says David Josserand, executive vice president and chief strategic officer of The Dalton Agency in Jacksonville, Fla., and 2008-2009 national chairman for the American Heart Association.

“A recent four-year sutdy reported in the Journal of Occupational and Environmentla Medicine found that employers can save $1.65 in healthcare expenses for every dollar they invest in fitness programs. Reducing just one health risk in a workplace can increase productivity by 9%,” Josserand said in a Forbes magazine article (pdf).

In addition to healthcare savings, studies also suggest that implementing a workplace physical activity program can help companies reduce absenteeism and lower turnover rates.

Businesses can register for the Start! Fit-Friendly Companies Recognition Program, which recognizes employers who advocate the health of their employees and work to create a culture of physical activity in the workplace. Nearly 1,000 companies were designated Fit-Friendly since the program was launched in 2007.

Participants in the Start! Fit-Friendly Companies Recognition Program are given free access to program resources, including materials to promote employee wellness programs, internal newsletter templates and consultation on CPR/AED programs.

Encourage employees to wear their sneakers to work tomorrow and take a 30-minute walk outside. Even if you can't pull things together to get started tomorrow, set a date in the near future and put your company on the road to wellness.

You can find free, downloadable walking plans and a list of walking paths in various cities at

Related posts:

Obesity linked to more expensive workers’ comp claims

Economic stress impacts employee health, productivity

Employee wellness best practices: Offset the rise in health care costs

Rising health care costs motivate employee wellness programs


Better work-life balance improves employee productivity

Second only to compensation, work-life balance is now one of the most important attributes people look for in an employer, according to research by the Corporate Executive Board. In their survey of more than 50,000 global workers, the company also found that employees who feel they have a better work-life balance tend to work 21% harder than those who don’t.

In the BusinessWeek video below, Accenture CHRO Jill Smart explains how her company found a way to make work-life balance work for their organization. By listening to their workforce, from the bottom up, management has created successful programs that work for both employees and the company.


Can an employer fire an employee for being too buff?

During a recent conversation with a friend in the HR industry, an interesting story came up about a situation at a past employer. To keep it simple, we’ll call our friendly HR-pro “Jane.” (Note: Names, dates and company information have all been omitted to protect the innocent.)

Years ago, Jane was recruiting physicians for the medical clinic she worked at when she thought she came across the perfect doctor to fill an open position. The applicant filled all the necessary qualifications, was well-educated, well-spoken, energetic and self-motivated. Jane offered the job to the doctor the day after the interview. He accepted and was hired.

After about a week on the job, Jane unexpectedly found the doctor showing off to some of the medical assistants in the employee lounge. The doctor, dressed in scrub pants and an undershirt, was having the medical assistants count off how many one-handed push ups he could complete in one minute. After the push-up routine, he proudly took off his shirt and asked for volunteers to hang on his biceps as part of another strength test.

Jane fired Dr. Muscle a week later and some of the female assistants seemed to be rather upset. However, Jane thought the office was better off without someone revealing their muscles and working out when they should be focused on their job.

While Jane may think she did her office a favor by getting rid of Dr. Muscle, could she have potentially put her clinic in serious legal trouble for the firing? A list of questions ran through my brain:

Can an employer fire an employee for being too buff? Could that warrant a sexual discrimination claim? Behavior is one thing, but what about just looking too hot and that being a distraction to the other employees? Is there a discrimination lawsuit in there? Is it the same for a good looking man or a good looking woman?

According the G.Neil legal team, unless you are a government employer or operate under a contract, your company is most likely an at-will employer. At-will simply means the employment relationship may be terminated at any time for any reason by either the employer or the employee. The only “catch” is that the “any reason” really means any reason except for an illegal one. In other words, you can terminate an employee because of absenteeism, poor work performance or simply because he/she isn’t a good fit for your company. However, you cannot fire someone for being Asian, a female, too old, etc. Firing someone because of race, color, national origin, religion, age, gender, disability or other legally protected characteristic is prohibited by law and may result in a claim of wrongful discharge.

Although there is no law that prohibits discrimination based on personal appearance, appearance-based litigation arises under several discrimination laws. These days employees and former employees are bringing lawsuits, which are in essence appearance-based discrimination claims, alleging violations of the ADA, ADEA, Title VII, and state fair employment statutes. By tying an unprotected physical characteristic to race, sex, national origin, religion, or disability, plaintiffs are able to get their appearance-based complaints in front of a judge or jury.

Can a particular employee be asked/required to cover up more than other employees because of appearance (good or bad)? Possible situations … large breasts, ugly scars, big muscles, deformities, etc. Is there a level of distraction that could justify such a request as part of a legitimate business need on the part of the employer?

Employers generally have the right to establish dress code and appearance standards for appropriate business reasons. Common business reasons include sustaining a positive public image, promoting productivity, and complying with health and safety standards. Legal claims can arise when an employer enforces dress code or appearance standards that are not business-related or applied uniformly, or when the standards affect one group of individuals more than another, in violation of federal or state anti-discrimination laws.

In some cases, a company might be required to make an exception to its established dress code or appearance standards for legal reasons. For example, employers are required to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs and employees generally should be permitted to wear head coverings, religious insignia and other tokens of faith. Religious accommodations are not required, however, if they present a safety risk, public health concern, or other undue hardship on the employer. For example, employees may be prohibited from wearing long hair or flowing garments near machinery, or they may be required to wear hats or ponytails in a food service establishment.

We know that firing an employee is never an easy thing to do, but knowing how to handle each stage of the process can make it go much smoother. The ComplyRight How to Fire Anyone: Your Guide to Fair and Legal Terminations will give you a clear explanation of the legal do’s and don’ts when it comes to firing employees.

Can an employer fire an employee for being too buff? Leave a comment and let us know what you think.

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