Back in January, I wrote about a woman who said she was fired because she was “too attractive.” This week, my “favorite firing” story is about a woman who claims she was fired after being told she was “not that pretty.”
In this day and age, managers should know better. In a landmark case from 1989, Price-Waterhouse v. Hopkins, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a female accountant who was told she was too much like a man. The Supreme Court permitted the use of evidence of sexual stereotyping to find sex discrimination in the Hopkins case. Now, almost a quarter century later, we have the case of Tober-Purze v. City of Evanston, an Illinois case in which a female attorney was told she wasn’t pretty enough.
[Kudos to HR Morning for raising this issue. See Psst: Telling female employee she’s ‘not that pretty’ isn’t a great management move, by Tim Gould, on HR Morning, August 29, 2013.]
The Facts: Elke Tober-Purze was an attorney working in the law department of the City of Evanston, Illinois. On August 21, 2013, the District Court overruled most of Evanston’s motion to dismiss. Because the only reported opinion in the case is on a motion to dismiss, we are early in determining the facts of the case. On a motion to dismiss, the plaintiff’s statement of facts is accepted as true, though it might be disproven during litigation.
In this case, Ms. Tober-Purze alleges that she was discriminated on the basis of her sex and her age, that she was not treated fairly in the calculation of vacation and sick pay accruals under Illinois law, and that she was unlawfully terminated in retaliation for pursuing the state law pay claims. The District Court only dismissed her state law retaliation claim; she was allowed to pursue the other claims.
For purposes of this post, I am only going to focus on her allegations of sex discrimination. It is very easy to plead a claim of sex discrimination. In a nutshell, the plaintiff only needs to allege that a bad act happened that did not happen to people of the opposite sex in similar circumstances.
Ms. Tober-Purze alleges that she was paid less than male attorneys and did not receive temporary duty pay, as males did. In addition, she alleges that her supervisors made the following comments:
- that she was “not that pretty”, and that other attorneys hired by the City were “smart . . . good-looking. . . just gorgeous . . . [and wore] tight sweaters . . . short skirts. . . .”
- that a superior told her and other female attorneys that “it’s been all downhill since women got the vote”
- that she and other women needed to get rid of magazines about female attorneys.
It should be noted that Ms. Tober-Purze also alleges that she was denied a pre-notice and pre-termination hearing.
Again, we don’t know what facts will be proven in this case. However, it is incredible that stories about comments on a woman’s appearance still surface in the workplace, almost fifty years after passage of Title VII in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and almost a quarter century after the Hopkins case.
The Moral: The moral in this case is simple—Managers should not be stupid. They should not make demeaning remarks about employees based on race or sex or age or any other protected category.
And a corollary is that managers should follow their own internal policies and procedures. Where the employer’s policy calls for internal dispute mechanisms, it is almost invariably better to use those procedures. Use of internal ADR procedures may delay the company’s resolution of a performance issue, but it is also likely to surface issues such as unfortunate remarks by managers. If an employee doesn’t raise the potentially discriminatory remarks during the internal ADR procedures, the company is better positioned if a lawsuit later results.
When have you been involved in a situation where managers have been stupid? Would ADR have helped resolve the issue?