An All Party Parliamentary Group released the ‘Reflections on Body Image report’ on Wednesday 30 May, in which it called for a “review into the scale of the problem of appearance-based discrimination and how this could be best tackled”, with one suggestion being an amendment to the Equality Act 2010 – possibly by adding a tenth ‘protected characteristic’ of ‘physical appearance’ to the existing nine (age, disability, pregnancy, race, etc.).
But exactly what this new protected characteristic would consist of is a tricky issue. If it were too broad it would open the flood gates to any employee wanting to claim that he was treated less favourably because his boss didn’t like the look of him.
On the other hand, is it really right that an overweight or underweight employee can be treated less favourably by their employer, without falling under the legal definition of ‘discrimination’? Should those born with ‘the attractive gene’ have a better chance of getting the job than anyone else? In principle, the only thing that should impact a person’s employability is their ability to do the job, so do we genuinely need to think about what can be done to bring these situations within the scope of the Equality Act?
The prospect for employers is a daunting one. There are already provisions taken into the Equality Act from the Disability Discrimination Act which prevent less favourable treatment on the grounds of serious disfigurement or a weight issue so great as to impair mobility. Any new protected characteristic would therefore have to lower the bar, but to what? Just weight? Or big ears, ginger hair, wonky noses, double chins, moles and pimples? This way madness lies. And then add in the Equality Act concepts of perception and associative discrimination and you have generated (at least in theory) a right to make a claim for having friends people in your workplace find unattractive. Is appearance-based discrimination fair? No. Is it ineradicable human nature? Almost certainly. Will the Government have to be quite astonishingly careful about this proposal? Definitely.