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What’s the answer? Appearance as a selection criteria at interview


Sam Swinstead gets legal guidance this week from Helen Badger, employment law expert at Browne Jacobson and Martin Brewer, a Partner with the employment team of Mills & Reeve on whether it’s valid to select on the basis of looks.

The question:
A colleague and I are having a debate about the validity/fairness of assessing candidates at a job interview on their appearance.

Before you take a sharp intake of breath – I DON’T MEAN the colour of skin, the use of a wheelchair or a hearing aid, attractiveness, weight, height, designer label clothing or any other unfair or illegal criteria.

I maintain that it is perfectly reasonable to require someone to attend an interview well presented whilst my colleague thinks that this is discriminatory.

When I say well presented, I mean appropriately dressed for the environment in which you are being recruited to work in. So I would expect a suit and tie if that is how people within the business dress, and I would happily accept jeans if that is acceptable clothing for the job.

What I do not think is acceptable is for candidates to turn up in inappropriate clothing for the environment (or just generally inappropriate clothing – ripped jeans, T-shirts with offensive slogans, clothes that are very revealing etc), to be untidy, dirty, smelly, have bad breath (I accept that there maybe some medical reasons for this and that this may have disability implications which I would be more than willing to take into account if notified.)

I expect people to have brushed their hair, brushed their teeth, (cleaned their shoes – a personal bug bear!) etc.

I want to recruit someone who has presented themselves as if the job is important to them and that they are seriously wanting to be considered a good candidate for employment

I think that you can present yourself in that way in any environment.

What are your views? I am happy to have my opinions challenged!


Sam Swinstead

The answers:
Helen Badger, employment law expert, Browne Jacobson

Provided you avoid obviously discriminatory factors in your assessment of an interviewee, then you would not be acting unlawfully. You could not take into account religious dress, age, obvious disability or perceived sexual orientation, for example, but I cannot see anything wrong with expecting a candidate to make an effort for the interview.

You would be wise to make a record of the reasons you rejected the candidate, avoiding any obviously derogatory terms which could be disclosable in tribunal proceedings, and think twice about the reason before confirming your decision. If you feel there is a prospect of your reason being interpreted as discriminatory, e.g. you reject a man with long hair or without a tie when this wouldn’t be reason for rejection of a female candidate, then you should not rely on it.

If you are confident that the reason for rejecting the candidate is their perceived failure to take the interview seriously, then you should be safe to use this as a reasonable basis for your decision. After all, it is inevitable that the interviewer’s impression of the candidate will have some impact on the decision as to their suitability for the position.

Helen can be contacted at: [email protected]

Martin Brewer, is a Partner with the employment team of Mills & Reeve

Sam, I don’t really see how you can avoid taking account of appearance. It simply will have an impact, even a subconscious one, on how you assess a person for exactly the reasons you say in your question.

However, that said, you must try to put appearance into context and properly weigh it in the balance along with your other criteria for selection. So for example if you are interviewing for someone to pack eggs, appearance will be relatively insignificant. If, on the other hand, you are interviewing for a customer facing role, appearance may be critical as a factor in selection.

My view is that you should not be afraid to raise this in the interview. Why not ask ‘why did you feel it appropriate to come for a job interview in jeans and a tee shirt’? All you have to steer clear of is sex, religious, sexual orientation and racial stereotyping.

Be aware that some people wear certain clothes out of a religious or quasi-religious belief, perhaps because of tradition (which may be racially based or based on nationality etc.). But, absent those considerations, as I say, it’s perfectly legitimate to look at dress/appearance.

Martin can be contacted at: [email protected]

See more What’s the answer? items here.

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Annie Hayes


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