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Clerk’s Discrimination Claim for Sexual Stereotyping Checks Hotel into Court

Brenna Lewis worked part-time as a front desk clerk for Heartland Inns in Altoona and Ankeny, Iowa. She did a great job — at least according to her direct supervisors. She was well liked by customers and fit in well in the position. Based on those accolades, she was offered and accepted a full-time day shift position at the Ankeny location. It was only after Heartland’s director of operations, Barbara Cullinan, saw her at work that Lewis learned a second interview would be required to “confirm” the job offer.

As Lewis soon found out, Cullinan expressed doubts that she was a “good fit” for the front desk position because she was less feminine than her predecessor and lacked the “Midwestern girl look.” Predictably, a lawsuit resulted. Of course, basing an employee’s future on a stereotypical “look” or “fit” instead of ability or performance is a bad idea — but is it actually illegal? Read on to find out.

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Too much like Ellen DeGeneres?
Lewis worked for Heartland for a year and a half before her problems with Cullinan began. She received two merit-based pay increases and worked as an auditor and front desk clerk on the night shift. Lori Stifel, Lewis’ manager at the Ankeny location, lauded her performance and received permission from Cullinan to offer her the front desk day position. Cullinan said nothing of a second interview at the time.

After seeing Lewis at work, however, Cullinan told Stifel that the hotel had taken “two steps back” when Lewis took over the front desk job from her predecessor, who dressed in a more stereotypically feminine manner. Lewis, who has been called “tomboyish,” wears loose clothing, including men’s button-down shirts and pants. Stifel described her style as “an Ellen DeGeneres kind of look.” Cullinan, on the other hand, had previously boasted about the appearance of female Heartland staff members and told another hotel manager not to hire an applicant because she wasn’t pretty enough.

Cullinan ordered Stifel to return Lewis to the night shift. When she refused, Cullinan insisted on her resignation. Stifel ultimately resigned, but before she did, she instituted a requirement that all front desk applicants undergo a second interview before hire. In addition, video equipment was purchased so that a Heartland representative — specifically, Cullinan or the HR director — could see the applicant before making an offer.

Cullinan met with Lewis a month after she approved her for the day shift position. At the meeting, she told Lewis she would need to participate in a second interview to “confirm” the position. Because Stifel had told Lewis about Cullinan’s “pretty” comments, Lewis objected to the interview and said she believed she was being subjected to the interview only because she lacked the “Midwestern girl look.”

Cullinan asked her if Stifel had told her about the comment. She then discussed the need for changes in management because of decreased revenues at the Ankeny location. When Lewis stated that policy changes such as a no-smoking policy and ban on pets might explain revenue losses, Cullinan asked for her opinion on other recent policy changes. Three days later, Lewis was fired for “thwart[ing] the interview procedure” and expressing “host[ility] toward Heartland’s most recent policies.”

Lewis sued, claiming that Heartland required female employees to conform to gender-specific stereotypes to work on the day shift. Heartland asked the court to dismiss the case, arguing that Lewis couldn’t show that she was discriminated against because of her sex. The district court agreed and dismissed the case, and Lewis appealed.

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Eighth Circuit checks in
The Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court and ruled that Lewis’ case could continue to trial. The court noted that sexual stereotyping — such as the requirement that female front desk staff be “pretty” — may violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Eighth Circuit noted that the U.S. Supreme Court held in 1989 that a female manager who was denied partnership in an accounting firm because she was “too macho” and in need of “a course at a charm school” was discriminated against because of her sex. Under this, the so-called Price Waterhouse standard, an employer may not make adverse employment decisions based on an employee’s failure to conform to gender stereotypes regarding behavior and appearance.

Because a reasonable juror could find that Cullinan’s requirements that Lewis — and other female front desk staff — be “pretty” and have the “Midwestern girl look” applied only to women and were because of sex, Lewis’ case must be allowed to go to trial. Brenna Lewis v. Heartland Inns of America, LLC , No. 08-3860 (8th Cir., Jan. 21, 2010).

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Practical pointers
Inquiring readers may want to know what, if anything, this case has to do with sexual orientation. The answer is “nothing.” The Eighth Circuit, appropriately, didn’t discuss the issue of sexual orientation in its opinion, nor did it provide any inkling about Lewis’ sexual orientation.

Federal law doesn’t expressly protect individuals from discrimination based on sexual orientation, but as this case indicates, federal law does provide protection based on gender-based stereotypes of behavior and appearance applied to one sex regardless of sexual orientation. Thus, even though neither federal law nor some states’ laws provides protection based on sexual orientation, the following tips could keep employers out of trouble the next time they are faced with gender-based stereotypes:

  • Discrimination “because of” sex is unlawful! Employment decisions, rules, and discriminatory attitudes that disadvantage one sex over another because of gender, including sexual stereotypes (i.e., that women should be feminine and men masculine), are illegal under Title VII.
  • Men and women are protected. It is equally illegal to discriminate against a male firefighter who isn’t stereotypically masculine as it is to discriminate against a female front desk clerk who isn’t “pretty” enough.
  • Dress codes with comparable burdens are lawful. This wasn’t a dress code case. Nevertheless, dress codes that impose standards of professional appearance on males and females are typically lawful and enforceable, even if they impose different but comparable burdens on the sexes.
  • Listen to your inner voice. This case has yet to go to trial, and we don’t know who will ultimately prevail. But it seems from the court’s opinion that there were probably several times when Cullinan’s “inner voice” — that internal alarm that warns us of unwise and dangerous situations — should have alerted her that the matter was headed for trouble. Lewis had received rave reviews from her direct supervisors and was already working in the position when the second interview was sprung on her. She received compliments from patrons on her outstanding customer service. Stifel felt so strongly about the situation that she resigned rather than return Lewis to the night position because she wasn’t “pretty” enough. Importantly, this was plainly a case dealing with sensitive sex-based stereotypes that appear to have been unrelated to performance. Cullinan’s inner voice should have been screaming. If your inner voice tells you that you’re headed for trouble, listen.

2 thoughts on “Clerk’s Discrimination Claim for Sexual Stereotyping Checks Hotel into Court”

  1. I agree that we need to listen to the “inner voice” but my sense from the facts related in this article is that Cullinan appears not to have one and, therefore, her judgment, a critical competency for a manger, is seriously lacking. The hotel chain would be wise to address that performance deficiency and recognize the liability Cullinan’s action created for their business.

  2. Cullinan is so ignorant to basic human rights it is laughable, not even addressing the issue that part of being a manager at that level demands, at the very least, training in the H/R issues facing managers and department heads. Dumb. Very, very, dumb. I am surprised that she could ever have been mistaken as a competent individual.

    Even if they win, I will NEVER stay in that hotel chain, on principle.

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