American Apparel – Can you Discriminate Against the Unattractive?

American Apparel – Can you Discriminate Against the Unattractive?

American Apparel has (finally) axed controversial founder and CEO Dov Charney six months after his suspension for alleged misconduct – and we're pretty sure it's for real this time.


The company alleges that he misused corporate money and violated the company's sexual harassment policies many, many times.

Charney is infamous for invoking repeated accusations of sexual harassment from employees and for discriminating against staff that are less attractive. He claims the reason behind this is that they undermine the corporate aesthetic.

Since his suspension in June, Charney has been working as a consultant to the company but was on Tuesday let go "for cause".

The allegations against Charney have been well known for many years, so today at Unlock the Law we examine the law relating to sexual harassment and discrimination in the UK and ask: What amounts to sexual harassment? And can you discriminate against unattractive employees?

What amounts to sexual harassment?

There is no doubt Dov Charney's Conduct throughout his time at American Apparel would amount to sexual harassment in UK employment and criminal law. His alleged actions include:

  • Using crude language and gestures to employees
  • Conducting job interviews in his underwear
  • Ordering the hiring of women in whom he had a sexual interest
  • Giving an employee a vibrator in the workplace
  • Claiming "slut," is one of the words most commonly used in the AA headquarters
  • Ordering a female employee to 'pretend to masturbate.' and when she refused ordering a male employee to do the same and then "simulated an oral sex act with him."
  •  Kept naked photos of female employees on his computer
  • Pursuing a course of sexual harassment against an employee who was 17. She claims she was held in Charney's apartment as a teenage 'sex slave' for 8 months and that Charney marked her 18th birthday by repeatedly sodomizing her. The alleged victim believed this to be normal practice in the fashion industry.

The law protects both men and women from sexual harassment in the workplace. Whilst Charney's conduct is blatant sexual harassment and may even amount to sexual assault in the UK, sexual harassment can be much more subtle. It may include:

  • Unwelcome comments that are sexual in nature
  • Unnecessary touching or unwanted physical contact
  • Staring or leering at a persons body
  • Display of material that is of a sexual nature that is offensive
  • Sending offensive or sexually explicit emails

You may also be the subject of sexual harassment if you are working in an environment in which the behaviour of your colleagues makes you feel intimidated, degraded, offended or humiliated on the grounds of your sex.

Whilst most sexual harassment is deliberate, some people may be unaware that their conduct is affecting you in this way. However, this does not mean that you cannot or should not complain about it if it makes you feel uncomfortable.

Can I be discriminated against on the basis of my attractiveness?

No one was safe at American Apparel it seems. Whilst the good looking were allegedly subjected to sexual harassment, the less attractive employees suffered discrimination.

Charney made managers of stores that had a slump in sales take group photos of their employees so that he could personally judge people based on appearance. Anyone that he deemed not good-looking enough to work there, was encouraged to be fired. This is blatant discrimination based on appearance.

However, under UK law appearance is not a characteristic protected by the Equality Act 2010. This means that in theory, attractive-only hiring policies are allowed.

On the other hand, it is possible that such policies discriminate against people with certain protected characteristics such as age, religion or disability. For example, if an employer's policy states that no one over 30, or anyone who wears a veil or has prosthetic limbs is to be hired, this may amount to discrimination.

The Equality Act covers the whole life-cycle of employment – this means that if you are fired or not hired on the basis of your looks and this can be related to age, religion or disability you could have a discrimination claim.

A good example is the case of Abercrombie and Fitch who lost a claim when an employee with a prosthetic arm was banned from the shop floor and confined to the stock room for detracting from the company aesthetic. Or another example is that of the BA flight attendant who won her religious discrimination claim in relation to a company policy that banned her from wearing a crucifix.

If you think you may be the subject of sexual harassment or discrimination in the work place, you should contact a specialist solicitor for advice.

Get more information on the law, read our free legal guides, follow us on Twitter or subscribe to our YouTube channel.

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