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.