Can you discriminate against the ugly, the short or the fat?

workplace discrimination against the unattractive
workplace discrimination against the unattractive

An East London bar has attracted something of a backlash, after advertising for attractive waiting staff. The advert was shared by Nicola Thorp, who has campaigned against discriminatory dress codes, and the reaction on social media was swift and shocked. The most shocking thing of all is that this kind of discrimination is actually allowed - and it's not the only one.

See also: Overweight people earn less than thinner counterparts. Why?

See also: The shocking rise of age discrimination

The advert didn't bother with subtle hints, and said simply: 'physical attractiveness is unfortunately necessary for this role'. The jobs board withdrew the advert for inappropriate wording, but in fact its not discriminatory to only employ attractive people: as long as attractiveness isn't specifically related to age, sex, religion, gender or race. There are plenty of retailers who only employ people whose faces fit, and who look the part, on the grounds they are the public face of the brand. Arguably this is a sensible move. Research shows that attractive salespeople tend to sell more than their unattractive counterparts.

The advert actually did breach discrimination rules, because it added that female candidates should be prepared to wear high heels. Having a dress code that insists on heels is technically outlawed by the Equality Act. Unfortunately, however, the law isn't properly applied, so provides no protection. It means that requiring high heels is surprisingly common.

There are actually a handful of common forms of discrimination that seem enormously unfair but are considered perfectly acceptable within the law.

1. Discrimination is against the overweight
Katy Hopkins famously said she wouldn't employ anyone overweight, and while her comments were ill informed and offensive, there was nothing illegal about them. Overweight people are not protected against discrimination unless their weight gain has been caused by a medical condition or disability.

2. Discrimination against short people
Short people are not specifically protected - unless it is caused by a disability. Discrimination in favour of tall people is rife: tall men make up a disproportionate number of CEOs and senior managers, and studies show a 1.8% increase in wages for every inch of height.

3. Discrimination on the grounds of class
Class isn't protected either, so someone working class could not bring a case against an employer who only seemed to employ posh people. Arguably such a law would promote social mobility, but it's not part of any political party's policies.

If you are discriminated against on these grounds, it's more difficult to act on than if you face discrimination on the basis of a protected characteristic - such as gender, age, religion or disability. In these cases, you have straightforward grounds to take a case to an employment tribunal

However, even if it is not related to a protected characteristic, it's not impossible to take action against discrimination. You may still be able to make a case against your employer for breach of contract or employment and health and safety laws.

It means that while employers may feel free to discriminate on these grounds, it could come back to bite them.