Can A Job Recruiter Pass On You For Your Appearance? A Viral TikTok Has People Fuming.

Melissa Weaver says she was rejected from a job for her appearance. Is that even allowed? Here's what experts say.
After she got rejected from a job interview, Melissa Weaver said she got feedback that it was because of her "appearance."
Illustration: HuffPost; Photos: _melissaweaver/Getty
After she got rejected from a job interview, Melissa Weaver said she got feedback that it was because of her "appearance."

Many of us never know why we did not get the job after nailing an interview. But Melissa Weaver, a New York City-based human resources professional, recently got unusually direct feedback as to why she lost a job opportunity — because of her “appearance.”

Weaver has been job hunting since January. In mid-March, she did a Zoom interview she thought went well for a vice president of human resources position. But a few days later, Weaver was disappointed to learn she would not be moving forward to the next stage.

When Weaver asked the job recruiter for feedback about why, the recruiter wrote back in an email reviewed by HuffPost that she “was concerned that you didn’t put forth enough effort into your appearance given you were interviewing for a vice president role.”

Weaver said she was “baffled” by this feedback.

She had blown out her hair and donned a freshly ironed blazer, collared shirt and earrings for her video interview. The only thing she had not done? Put on makeup.

“I just kind of stared at [the email],” she told HuffPost. “And then I sort of thought, ‘Well, I don’t think it’s that important, but maybe am I wrong? Is it expected for women to wear makeup in the workforce?’”

Assuming that the recruiter passed on her due to a lack of makeup, Weaver posed a question on TikTok: “Does not wearing makeup for women to job interviews or to jobs make it seem like they aren’t putting in as much effort or care into their job?”

In response, she got thousands of comments from people who could relate to the experience of having their appearance scrutinized at work.

“I have been told, ‘You look nice, you put on makeup.’ People see it as not trying if you don’t wear makeup,” one commenter wrote, while another noted that colleagues thought she was “stressed” when she wore less makeup.

“It seems like the overall consensus is that [makeup] shouldn’t be important, but it is,” Weaver said.

Are comments about your appearance at work legal?

Giving a candidate feedback about their appearance “is not in and of itself discriminatory,” according to Domenique Camacho Moran, a New York-based employment lawyer who represents employers.

Moran cited the example of an executive candidate showing up in baggy sweatpants, a dirty shirt and old sneakers. In that case, “his image doesn’t really work for an executive-level position in an organization,” she said.

“That look of professional attire — I think that is a legitimate non-discriminatory standard that applies across the board,” she added.

But Moran said if the reason Weaver didn’t get the job was because she didn’t wear makeup, that’s a concern. Questions around whether or not the employer had a policy mandating makeup would be key to knowing whether there is a claim for unlawful discrimination, she said.

Certain airlines have makeup requirements for flight attendants, for example, although there are a growing number of airlines that are relaxing those dress codes for self-expression.

The main problem is when a certain group is singled out for having to wear makeup to get and keep a job.

“If the requirement is sex stereotyping, that’s going to be problematic,” Moran said, noting that legal courts will want to know, “Is it part of a costume? Is there any appearance standard for others, not just the women who are being required?“

And even if this kind of comment does not provoke legal action, hiring teams should know that sharing feedback about appearance is unhelpful.

“In HR, there’s a lot of gray area. So, while something may not be illegal as defined by a specific law, an action can be unethical or simply unkind,” said Kyra Leigh Sutton, an HR expert at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. “We know job interviews are intended to allow candidates to communicate their ability to perform the job. Typically, a person’s appearance is not considered.“

Sutton said if a recruiter does want to share feedback, it should be limited to the skills or experiences a candidate can seek out to prepare them for other roles.

“Feedback related to personal appearance or clothing is unhelpful and subjective,” she said.

Moran also encouraged employers to limit feedback to simply, “We found other candidates that were more qualified,” because too much detail and it becomes an open question of, “Was that really the only thing that prevented this candidate from getting to the next step in the hiring process?”

After her disappointing experience with the recruiter, Weaver thought about reaching out to the company about it but has decided against it for now to avoid jeopardizing her job search.

But if she could, Weaver said she would tell the recruiter that, if she actually passed on Weaver for not wearing makeup, it’s a practice that turns away “good candidates, not just me, because of an outdated idea that whether or not a woman wears makeup somehow equates to whether or not she’s good at a job.”

Appearance requirements vary, which makes it hard in any case.

What you need to look “polished” or “put together” is a subjective idea that varies from job to job. At worst, dress codes can be discriminatory.

When in doubt about how you should show up to an interview, ask a recruiter or an employee who works at the company already.

“What’s the difference between business casual and casual? I think those are legitimate questions, and questions that candidates should be asking their contact before they interview,” Moran said.

But often, in the case of makeup, it can be an unspoken standard. That’s why wearing makeup to a job interview can still be such a fraught decision. Maybe that mascara and concealer will give you an advantage, or maybe they will not. Weaver’s advice to her fellow job seekers is to stay authentic to who you are.

“Don’t do something that you wouldn’t be OK continuing doing once you get the job,” she said.

“But at the same time, it’s a competitive job market. I wish that it wasn’t,” she added. “So if you feel like it’s going to give you an advantage, if you feel like it’s going to give you more confidence going into an interview, then OK, do what is going to make you comfortable.”

As for Weaver? She is going to stay makeup-free for her job interviews. She said she received advice to just wear makeup at the interview and to stop when she gets the job, but she decided against that advice, noting that she has acne-prone skin and wearing foundation is “not authentically me.”

“I just decided at the end of the day, I didn’t want to [wear makeup] because I didn’t want to put up a false persona of who I am,” Weaver said.

So far, her approach is working. Weaver said she has upcoming second- and fourth-round interviews at different companies scheduled. It’s a reminder that companies can move on from candidates — and you can too.

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