The allegations are hardly surprising, and they are exacerbated by the fact that Trump has been accused of discriminatory practices before and throughout the campaign. But we shouldn't be that surprised that this kind of thing happens at restaurants from time to time. Psychology studies have found
what many businessmen and barflies have long suspected: Waitresses whose customers deem them attractive are likely to generate more money.
We didn't need a study to know that better-looking people in general have advantages in life. It's not fair, but then again, not a lot of things in life are.
Well, not exactly.
The rules of morality have always covered a wider range of behavioral issues than that of the rules of law. In other words, that which is cruel is not always illegal. While discrimination may be unkind, only a fraction of all discrimination is illegal. And sometimes discriminating against workers based on their attractiveness might even be legal, even if unfair.
In order to assert a valid Title VII claim
for sex discrimination, a plaintiff must establish that what the employer did was either intentionally discriminatory or that it had a discriminatory effect on the basis of gender.
But appearance standards at a job are not automatically illegal. Looks-based rules that impose different burdens on men and women might be legal if essentially equal. For example, courts have held that companies may impose different hair length requirements on men and women, and may require men but not women to wear neckties. In short, different grooming and dress standards between the sexes is not necessarily sex discrimination
under Title VII.
In addition, Title VII identifies one extremely narrow exception
permitting outright discrimination: Gender may be considered when it is a "bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ) reasonably necessary to the normal operation of the particular business or enterprise." An employer should also be prepared to prove
that sex is a legitimate proxy for determining whether a person has the necessary job qualifications for that job. The BFOQ defense comes up in court cases whenever a company tries to ensure their employees are comely in order to give themselves that competitive edge. Airlines and other image-conscious industries have tried, for example, to impose weight standards on females in the past. Surprisingly, weight standards that are different and more burdensome for females could still theoretically be justified
as a BFOQ.
What would be some examples of other legitimate BFOQs? Perhaps
the preference of a French restaurant for a French cook, or a professional baseball team preferring male players, or a business that seeks patronage of members of a particular religion looking for a salesman of that religion.
On the other hand, a restaurant claiming a right to discriminate against males and "unattractive people" because attractive people personify the resort's image? That might be a hard sell
to a court.
Unless you're Hooters. The "breastaurant
" argues that for a "Hooters Girl," a "pretty face" and "sex appeal" are essential. Hooters claims sexy female waitresses are a BFOQ. Analogizing the job to an actor or fashion model, for whom looks might qualify as a BFOQ, Hooters states its waitresses are entertainers who audition for their roles and, once hired, maintain a specific appearance to provide that unique Hooters experience.
For the most part, Hooters has avoided adjudication of this defense by settling court cases. But the BFOQ defense would be an interesting proposition to a court today, especially in light of the ever-evolving views of gender in our society. Recently, one federal appeals court flat out said that because of the demanding legal standards, BFOQs are "few and far between
. In many industries, it is difficult to imagine any jobs that would qualify as BFOQs."
Similarly, it appears the 2012 case against Trump was settled quietly in 2013 without any admission of wrongdoing. So we won't ever learn if Trump's golf resort could have successfully adapted the "Hooters defense" in asserting a BFOQ.
Had it proceeded to court, the Trump defense might have been that the more fetching hostesses at the restaurant rose to the level of "entertainers" -- not simply hostesses. This would have been a tough argument to make for three reasons: First, the BFOQ exception is very narrowly, and rarely applied -- some modern courts have difficulty even imagining a legitimate BFOQ. Second, the Trump lawsuit alleged that the unattractive employees were treated differently than the attractive employees, which means that unattractive employees could perform the job as well as the attractive ones -- it's just that the boss didn't want to look at them while they did it, allegedly. That in turn suggests that the supposed policy was linked not just to improved sales but also to appeasing the boss man when he stopped in for a (Trump) steak. This would probably not meet the exacting standards of a BFOQ exception.
Employer "look" policies are not a thing of the past, though. Just last year the Supreme Court expressly acknowledged them as acceptable, as long as the policy has exceptions for protected classes (like wearing religiously-motivated headgear). At the same time, changing views on gender roles and sexual orientation both socially and in the law may start to chip away
at companies' appearance policies. And, even if it is legal for Trump to discriminate on this basis, it's probably not good for public relations. Fairness may not be required by the law in all instances, but it might be required by a voting constituency.