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Federal sex discrimination case: Male's right to wear jewelry at work

In a sexual harassment related case, a federal court in Alabama has permitted a male's sex-bias claim to proceed against a women's accessories company, Charming Charlie, after the company's manager made sexist and sexually harassing comments about men during the hiring process. Thereafter, the company offered the prospective employee a position but failed to give him a start date. The case is Owen v. Charming Charlie, No. 13-S-1009-S, 2013 WL 3968658 (N.D. Ala. July 31, 2013).

According to the plaintiff employee, Courtney Owen, a male plaintiff, applied for a retail position at a Charming Charlie store. The manager of the store called him and offered a job interview. During the interview, the manager told Owen that she rarely hires males. Owen claims she further stated that men typically "don't like" the company's policy requiring all sales associates to wear six accessories while working." Owen claims he replied that he had no problem with the six accessory requirement, whereupon the hiring manager stated again that men typically do not like and "can't do" the dress code. She then told Owen that she "might be willing" to hire his on a temporary basis, and that if he followed the dress code, he "might" be hired on a permanent basis.

The company sent Owen an offer letter the next day, together with the hiring documents. Owen completed the documents as requested and received a telephone message to join the "set-up team" to prepare for the grand opening of a new store. Owen attempted several times to follow up, but never heard back from the company.

Owen then complained for sex discrimination/sexual harassment with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for having been denied employment on the basis of sex. Owen alleged in his complaint that "the accessories requirement and other policies have a disparate impact on male applicants and employees and intentionally discriminate against male applicants and employees, without sufficient business justification, and [defendant] knows this. In addition to its policies having a disparate impact and weeding out male applicants, respondent engages in a pattern and practice of intentional discrimination against males in the hiring process and in the terms and conditions of employment of any males who are hired and uses its accessories policy as a pretext for intentional discrimination in hiring and in other terms and conditions of employment."

The District Court in Alabama has allowed the complaint to proceed. The Court noted that the company hiring manager made statements during Owen's interview that apply to men as a whole: i.e., that the company  "rarely hires men"; and that "men typically don't like the company's requirement for employees to wear six to seven 'accessories.'" These facts show a facially neutral policy ("the company's requirement for employees to wear six to seven 'accessories'"), and of a disparate impact on male applicants and employees (Wells' statement that "men typically don't like" that requirement). The Court noted that those facts demonstrate that Charming Charlie has "pattern or practice of discriminating against males."

This case presents an example of gender bias and sex discrimination in the hiring stage, as opposed to a sexual harassment claim presented post-hire. Both Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and California's Fair Employment and Housing Act ban all forms of gender and sex-based discrimination and harassment by employers.

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