An advertisement for a well-known pizza brand running on UK television at the moment leads the employment lawyer in us all (me, anyway) to consider the potential pitfalls of “look-ism” for employers.

Dealing with that advert, to start. For the uninitiated, it starts with a slow-pan shot of a group of unnaturally good-looking and fearsomely trendy individuals (one of whom uses the base of a stainless steel saucepan as a mirror to keep his hairstyle perfectly in place – one star for innovation, at least), before the voiceover intones that ‘people who look this good can’t cook’. Cue shot of ordinary mortal, plain to behold but obviously bulging with whatever culinary skills are required to cook pizza.

Discrimination on the grounds of looks or lack thereof (short of a severe disfigurement) is not presently prohibited under the UK’s new Equality Act, although basic courtesy dictates that recruiters do not describe a candidate as ‘having a face for radio’ or similar, at least not in writing. The advert in question is obviously aimed at its customers rather than prospective cooks and is clearly all very tongue in cheek. Nonetheless, there is a serious message for employers — that their preference for one candidate over another by reason of looks must be based on non-discriminatory factors.   

The world of television is no stranger to claims of discrimination – in the space of the last two months the BBC has been censured for its off-hand treatment of presenter Miriam O’Reilly, perceived to be too old to attract the younger audience sought, and there was a heated debate only last week about the conspicuous absence of non-white actors in what its producer defensively described as that “most English of programmes”, Midsomer Murders. Such cases should serve as a reminder that employers cannot usually require their employees to possess certain physical attributes for fear that viewers/customers might otherwise be put off by the presence of an employee who is visibly of a certain age or religion, pregnant, disabled, or of minority ethnic origin, etc.

Whilst we can all accept that television is dominated by image, it is not just the world of media that has fallen into the trap. Abercrombie & Fitch, the clothes retailer, was ordered to pay £9000 to an employee who claimed she was banished to Stores because A&F didn’t think that her prosthetic arm or the cardigan she wore to hide it fitted in with its desired “image”. It does have a detailed set of “Look” rules but how it takes what is apparently a full 45 pages to explain how to stand by the door in not quite enough clothes is perhaps an issue for another time.