By Rights... Answers to Your Human Rights Questions

Column 4

In this column:

  • A Boss's Unwelcome Comments About Asians
  • An Employer Fires Back About a "Ridiculous" Discrimination Charge
  • Can One be Discriminated Against for Being "Too Beautiful?"

A Boss's Unwelcome Comments About Asians

I'm a Caucasian male, and a few months ago I started dating a woman who happens to be Asian. One day my boss overheard me talking to Ming on the phone, and asked me about her. I didn't say very much, but ever since then, he's been asking me about her several times a week. Some of his questions -- and some other statements he's made -- have been very personal, things you wouldn't say in mixed company, if you know what I mean. I'd tell him to mind his own business, but I need the job. So far, I've kept my mouth shut, but if this gets really out of hand and I can't take it any more, can your department do anything?

The Commissioner says:

There isn't always a clear line between "free speech" -- expressing a personal opinion -- and discriminatory comments. Your boss may not realize that his comments are offensive to you. You should politely let him know that you prefer to keep your personal life private, and you'd rather not hear about his. If he continues with these comments, or says something clearly derogatory about the woman you are dating, or men who date Asian women, or Asian women in general, then there could be a basis for taking a charge. If his response to being asked to keep his opinions to himself is an adverse job action, a charge could be taken about that also. The Human Rights Act prohibits reprisal against someone for opposition to discrimination, such as objecting to derogatory sexual or racial remarks, or for association with a person of another race (or other protected-class status).

An Employer Fires Back About a "Ridiculous" Discrimination Charge

I'm an employer, and a former employee of ours has filed a completely ridiculous charge of discrimination against our company. We know the law here, and we follow it. In this case, the employee's work had been below par since he started, and he had four unexcused absences -- if anything, he was given an extra break because management wants a diverse workplace. We finally had to take some disciplinary action, and now he's claiming discrimination. There is no basis to his claim, and he knows it. But we are now in the position of having to produce reams of documentation and make our employees available for interviews -- we appear to be guilty, until proven innocent. It frankly amazes me that you would accept a baseless charge and put a company through what seems like an inquisition -- without even investigating first.

The Commissioner says:

Does it help to know you aren't the only employer that has felt this way? The reality is that because we are a neutral agency, charged with enforcing the Human Rights Act through objective investigations, we have to take a charge to get the facts that will lead to a fair determination. We do ask people a lot of questions before a charge gets filed, and we don't take a charge just because someone thinks their absences should have been excused because they really were sick. The key issue we examine in this kind of charge is "comparative treatment." Did others get more slack, or is everyone held to the same standards? Were the company policies followed?

The information we've asked you for will document your explanation of how this employee was dealt with. If it seems we've asked for a lot more information than we really need, you can ask us about narrowing it down. Sometimes the preliminary information -- your answer to the charge, the documentation you provide, and the charging party's rebuttal is enough to conclude that there's no point to going further, and the charge is dismissed without an extended investigation. That doesn't mean the employee filed a charge just to hassle the employer. He may have genuinely felt discriminated against because he didn't understand your policies, or didn't know about others who were treated the same under them.

Can One be Discriminated Against for Being "Too Beautiful?"

I am a woman who is considered exceptionally good-looking. Before I moved to Minnesota four years ago, I was third runner-up in a statewide beauty pageant in my home state. You might think beauty would be an asset in my career, but in fact, it has proved to be the opposite. I am an engineer, working on a project with a team of six other engineers for a large company. Simply because I am attractive, I am treated differently than everybody else on the team, which includes four men and two other women. Although I minored in speech communication and was once offered a job as a news anchor, I am not listened to. I am completely comfortable in front of a large audience, unlike several of my co-workers who are painfully shy and practically stutter when they speak. Yet I am never the one chosen to present our work at company meetings -- I am considered too beautiful. One of my coworkers even said, "If Gail gives the presentation, they'll be looking at her legs instead of the charts and graphs." I consider this quite sexist, even though the comment was made by another woman. I would like information on filing a charge of discrimination with the Department of Human Rights.

The Commissioner says:

There isn't any provision in the Human Rights Act prohibiting discrimination on the basis of "being too beautiful," but it's possible that this could be a kind of sex discrimination. There is a concept in discrimination law known as "sex-plus," where employers have a different standard or expectation for the appearance of female employees, compared to males. This usually comes up in situations where women are hired or given assignments based on their "sex appeal, " even though anyone, male or female, could have the skills to get the work done. It's possible that this principle could apply in your situation, though there could be other factors involved.

It could be a bit uncomfortable, but it might be worth the effort to discuss your concerns with the project leader, or the coworker who suggested your appearance is distracting, or someone in the company's human resources department. If that doesn't resolve your concerns, or you don't want to talk to anyone in the company about it, you can contact our Intake Unit. We can get details that would indicate whether there is a basis for taking a discrimination charge.

The answers in these columns are not intended as legal advice. The Department of Human Rights does not make a judgment on any case without carefully examining all the facts.

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