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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