Debrahlee Lorenzana, Looks, the Workplace, and Ethics

The Debrahlee Lorenzana controversy raises important ethical issues, even though we may yet discover that it was wholly manufactured by Debrahlee.  Right now, this ethics train wreck in progress is a classic “employer said/ ex-employee said” dispute in which all the facts have yet to be sorted out.  Lorenzana, the former employee, alleges that she was terminated by Citibank for being so va-va-voom! attractive that she distracted her otherwise staid bank coworkers and supervisors. Citibank, the employer, has told the media that “Ms. Lorenzana has chosen to make numerous unfounded accusations and inaccurate statements against Citibank and several of our employees.  While we will not discuss the details of her case, we can say that her termination was solely performance-based and not at all related to her appearance or attire.  We are confident that when all of the facts and documentation are presented, the claim will be dismissed.”

The timing of her lawsuit certainly seems too good to be accidental.  Stanford Professor Deborah Rohde’s recently published book, The Beauty Bias, argues that attractiveness is such a powerful factor in hiring that the nation may need tough new laws to combat “lookism.” Just as the bloggers and op-ed writers were starting to argue about whether we need yet another protected class of Americans and, perhaps, quotas of ugly people in the workplace, here comes a victimized beauty claiming that discrimination cuts both ways. As John Travolta’s character says in “Face-Off,” “What a coinkydink!”

Based on personal experience and knowledge, I think it is very possible that Lorenzana’s version of the facts are true. Organizations do sometimes treat attractive women in this way, and when they do, it is unfair. On the other hand, she is unusually attractive, she seems to be intelligent, and her lawsuit has already garnered her one high profile magazine cover and is sure to put her and her comely curves on the fast track to pop-media fame. She may be using Citibank to turn herself into a celebrity and misrepresenting what happened to achieve fame, fortune, and a place on the reality show A List.

Let’s give Lorenzana the benefit of the doubt for now, and assume that her job performance was exemplary apart from the fact that her striking appearance caused her female colleagues to feel like trolls and her male coworkers to keep tripping on their tongues. She says that she was asked to adhere to a dress code that applied only to her, and that she was told, in effect, that it didn’t matter what the short, dumpy and unattractive female employees wore because nobody wanted to look at them anyway.

Several difficult issues are involved here:

  • The inherent inadequacy of dress codes. Citibank’s cress code is vague and only inveighs against “provocative” dress. Provocative to whom? The same close-fitting dress can be professionally attractive on one woman, repulsive on another, and exhibitionism on a third. In 2007, Southwest Airlines threw a young, fit, busty woman in a tee shirt off a plane for “inappropriate dress,” while allowing older, fatter, or less well-endowed passengers to wear essentially the same outfits without objection. Not only that: many of those other passengers, and I speak again from experience, would provoke temporary blindness and trauma if you looked at them too long, while the ejected passenger, by any standard, was pleasant to look at. This is unfair. A dress code that requires a business suit, or bans tee shirts, at least holds everyone to the same standard. But photos of Lorenzana in a black sweater and a business suit shows how even “appropriate dress” can be “provocative,” when you look like her.
  • The sexual harassment and discrimination hurdle. The sexual harassment and discrimination laws are necessary but seriously flawed, because they can turn appropriate communication into a harassment suit if an employee decides, maliciously or honestly, that, the communication caused workplace discomfort. As a supervisor of interns at a major D.C. association, I once had to explain to a  gorgeous college senior that in a professional workplace, dressing to highlight all of her best features was neither wise nor the best route to respect and advancement. I also told her that this was something she had to learn to cope with because she was so unusually attractive. She was grateful for the advice, and acted on it, but I nearly didn’t give it, because I knew that I was venturing into a legal minefield. I ultimately decided that it would be unfair not to explain this fact of workplace life to an intern, who was there to learn. Yet I was once told by an E.E.O.C. specialist at a New York law firm that he never took young, attractive female associates to assist him on business travel, only older or unattractive women and male associates. “I don’t want to get sued,” he said.
  • Unequal application of workplace laws against bias. Morbidly obese, smelly, loud, strangely dressed and hideously deformed workers can be distractions in the workplace, because human beings are naturally distracted by anything that is unusual. The laws protect  transsexual in the midst of transitioning from male to female from discrimination, but believe me, when a 250 pound, bearded,  formerly-male co-worker is walking around the office in heels and a dress, it’s distracting. Extremely attractive people are very rare too, and they are also naturally distracting. As with the unusually odd or unattractive, it’s the duty of co-workers to deal fairly with their biases and base instincts, and not make the unusual features of the attractive employee her (or his) problem. The laws require fairness to the unattractive, but not to the attractive as long as there is no harrassment. Rohde is correct; attractive people are favored for jobs. All one has to do is survey the Congressional staffs on Capitol Hill to prove her point. The effects attractive people have on others, however, as well as third parties assuming these effects, cause unfair workplace biases that the laws don’t address, and probably can’t.

If Lorenzana’s supervisors asked her to dress more conservatively to be consistent with the banks culture and customer expectations (bank customers do not expect those who are entrusted with their savings and investments to look like cocktail hostesses), then they were being fair and reasonable. This isn’t exactly like the Southwestern debacle: what is acceptable professional dress for Hillary Clinton may not be acceptable for Debrahlee Lorenzana, and vice-versa. If, however, the supervisors were telling Lorenzana that she had to restrict herself to loose-fitting suits, drab dresses or burkhas because she was just too damn hot, they need to 1) grow up 2) be professional, 3) stop blaming Lorenzana for their own lack of self-control, and 4) allow her to feel good about herself and attractive at work, which is her right.

Debrahlee Lorenzana has some ethical obligations too. It is reasonable for her to want to look good, but she should have been receptive to reasonable requests from supervisors to keep her dress within professional bounds. In one of the articles about her, she is photographed in a tight white skirt and a frilly blouse revealing lots of cleavage, and she has lots to reveal. Citibank isn’t “C.S.I Miami.” If that is her idea of appropriate work attire, she is just wrong. On the other hand, another photos shows her in a black business suit, looking smashing and sexy, but looking like a professional woman who happens to be gorgeous. That’s not her fault, and she would be right to tell critical supervisors, “This is my body. Deal with it.”

Whatever the facts turn out to be, the episode vividly illustrates how dealing with human attractiveness and our reactions to it is too complex to be solved by laws alone. Common sense, fairness, and respect are indispensable.

18 thoughts on “Debrahlee Lorenzana, Looks, the Workplace, and Ethics

  1. II am new here. I just heard about this case on NPR, did a quick web search and came across your blog. First off, I have to say nicely done. I enjoyed this read and several other pieces. However, I disagree a bit in your analysis.

    You are correct, organizations do sometimes treat attractive women in this way, and when they do, it is unfair. However that inequality pales in comparison to how unfairly unattractive people are treated. Dress codes are biased towards the unfit and unattractive just like affirmative action is biased towards certain minority groups. Of course in both cases it can be unfair, but as a society we have seemed to accept that natural consequence as spreading the unfairness around a bit.

    My other point of disagreement is that you make it sound like she just can’t help but to be so gorgeous. Women (and men) who are this good looking well into their thirties obviously work at it. Her clothes are fitted to an extreme and her make up is perfect. None of that is an accident. Of course, anyone should feel free to exercise, eat right and have a great body and complexion. Most of us agree that such behavior should be encouraged. But that doesn’t mean dressing is skin-tight clothes, is a natural extension of the situation and she has no accountability for how she dresses.

    • Thanks for the kind words.

      I don’t think I suggested that bias that harms attractive-looking people is as pervasive or as harmful as bias against unattractive people, because it isn’t. This is juts an indication that it exits In general, very few beautiful people would trade their looks for an end to wolf-whistles, pinches and unfair assumptions, though some would and in fact do.

      I’m not sure of your other point. There’s nothing wrong with maximizing one’s appearance, and while some have the resources to do it while others don’t, it’s mostly a choice or priorities. One should be able to look as attractive as one wants and still be considered professional if the choice of dress and make-up don’t exceed reasonable boundaries of decorum and taste.

      • I don’t think I was clear on my second point. I took issue with you writing (and I am paraphrasing here) that it is not her fault that she is so attractive. If you consider her attractiveness a flaw, then she certainly is at fault. She obviously makes a concious effort to be so attactive and is therefore quite culpable for her looks.

        • “Culpable for her looks”? Since when is looking good anything but a gift to those who have to look at you? I would say that beauty is hardly something someone should be ashamed of or considered “culpable” for. I would also say, based on the several photos I’ve seen, she makes the most of what she has, but has more than the average person to work with. Neither of which should be the object of blame, or create an obligation to look more average or less attractive.

              • No you wrote “her fault” and my issue is that those words. To the extent that being too attactive or sexy is a fault (or a flaw, as I wrote) she is responsible for it and it is “her fault.” It isn’t someone’s fault when it is something they have no responsibility (or culpability) for. In the context of this story, however, she is responsible for her appearance so to the extent that there is fault to be had, it is hers.

                • Absolutely untrue. Unless she is dressing unprofessionally, the fault lies with those who are uncomfortable with attractive women who won’t shy away from looking their best. There can be no “fault” or “blame” for a blameless act. Unusually good looking people are extremely rare; they are, in some sense, freaks of nature. I don’t fault an unusually homely individual for not wearing a sack over his head so as not to “distract,” and we shouldn’t “fault” a beautiful woman who doesn’t wear unflattering clothing because she works with people who can’t get over her looks.

                  Do you really disagree with that?

                  • She isn’t responsible for other people’s behavior. She is responsible for her appearance (within context.)

                    If there is no fault in the way she dresses, the argument is there is not a fault, not that the fault is not hers.

                    • Uh, OK. Is that all you have been saying? That if she dresses inappropriately she’s at fault? That’s obvious, isn’t it? I read your earlier comment to suggest that she is “at fault” is she doesn’t control her attractiveness sufficiently to avoid causing a workplace disruption, even if by any objective standard she’s not doing anything excessive. And I think that position is unreasonable and unfair. Again, she has every right to be as gorgeous as her genes, age and fitness level allow her to be within conventions of workplace propriety, and if others find that disquieting, it’s their problem, not hers. If your point is that she can hardly complain about people noticing and reacting to (again, within acceptable bounds) her appearance, she should not be penalized for it or told to look “worse” for the convenience of the workplace.

                    • What I am tring to get at is that you wrote “…looking like a professional woman who happens to be gorgeous. That’s not HER fault…” When now it seems to me you meant “…looking like a professional woman who happens to be gorgeous. That’s not A fault…”

                      Subtle difference, I know.

                    • I think both are true. It’s nobody’s “fault” that she’s gorgeous, and being gorgeous, appearing gorgeous, and not trying to be un-gorgeous because some horny male c0-workers or insecure/ jealous female co-workers are not faults.

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  3. Sorry, I can’t resist.

    From Gilbert & Sullivan’s comic operetta PATIENCE:

    Patience: But why do you make yourself so picturesque ? Why not disguise yourself, disfigure yourself, anything to escape this persecution ?

    Grosvenor: No, Patience, that may not be. These gifts, irksome as they are, have been confided to me for the enjoyment and delectation of my fellow-creatures. I am a trustee for Beauty, and it is my duty to see that the conditions of my trust are faithfully discharged.

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  5. I quote what one lady said , “The reality is that men are wired to react to female sexual displays. What they do about it is another story. Nevertheless, most women know very well that they do this to men by displaying their breasts. That is a good part of why women do it for the power it has to open doors and male wallets.

    Well I’m teaching English to a class of adult students and one of the female students who has a beautiful figure and big gorgeous breasts comes into class wearing tight skimpy tops and tight pants which emphasize her breasts and her figure. She often asks me over to her desk with a question. She’s friendly to me and comes up to my desk to ask something . Is she teasing me ?she must know that it really turns me on. Or is she just being friendly -is she deliberately trying to turn me on for fun- I don’t know why she dresses like that in my class. I’ve been very helpful and nice to her with her English studies and this is how she repays me -sexually teasing me-Ladies what do you think?
    Ross

    • Women are not visual creatures like men, we dress this way because it is “fashionable” to dress this way and the stores in the mall all sell the same type of clothing. We get treated better for dressing cute, by both men and women, and that makes us feel better about ourselves. If you have a naturally good body it’s going to be hard to find clothes that don’t show it off. Your choices are either wearing a black baggy shirt or wearing a burka. We don’t dress daily to impress men, believe it or not.

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