For many years, I have thought of writing something on this subject, but was stymied because I am neither a human resources specialist nor a lawyer, or anyone else who can speak authoritatively on the matter of employment practices. I am just a concerned America, by which I mean someone who is going to rant on the internet. And in fact, I am going to speak about the larger issues involved, which are just as important for housing and any other application of Equal Opportunity as they are for employment as such.
With that in mind, let me tell a story that has been on my mind for year. I used to belong to a non-profit, as a volunteer and later as an employee. This non-profit was just chock full of progressive ideas and projects and people. It involved computers, environmentalism, social activism, and was also run (at the time) as a community-based organization, and as a worker collective. The entire story of this particular non-profit's descent into being another cog in the realm of corporate allied Public Relations is another story entirely.
But back in the middle part of the last decade, there was one worker there. Unlike many of the workers and volunteers that made up the community, she was older, had a child, and was also quite overweight. She was employed as a temporary employee, as a receptionist, for six months. Running concurrently with her employment, there was another temporary employee, who was also older, but who male, childless and more physically fit. At the end of their temporary employments, the women was let go, and the man continued on as a full time employee.
This is, of course, a single story, and there are many subtleties to the story left out. And the reader can probably remember a very similar story of their own. The point of this story is not just that Portland hipsters are a hypocritical lot (although if that is a lesson you need to learn, please learn it), it is that employment law, like most equal opportunity law, prevents discrimination against people who who members of a group, but not against people who are (as the title so bluntly states) somehow unlikeable. While this may be obvious, the complications and morality of it are more ridiculous with the more we think about it.
First, the complications: when is it the individual who is being discriminated against, and when is it their group? Lack of professional appearance is an (understandably) legitimate reason for someone being unable to hold a job. But what does "professional appearance" mean? Take, for instance, an African-American employee working as a bank teller. Perhaps such a person having a hairstyle deemed too casual would be a good cause for dismissal. Certain popular hair styles for blacks, such as dreadlocks or cornrows, maybe have connotations that are inappropriate for a bank teller. But there are also biological restrictions to how black people can wear their hear. So at what point would a bank firing an employee for having an "unprofessional appearance" move from being a justified (or even totally, totally unjustified) decision on an individual, and become a blanket discrimination against people of that race?
Somewhere, this court case probably exists.
Another case could be like the one that I mentioned above: when someone has multiple categories that might make them undesirable, some protected, some not. Discriminating against someone for being female is unlawful, but happens frequently and is hard to prove. Discriminating against someone because of their age is unlawful, but happens frequently and is hard to prove. Discriminating against someone because they have children is (I believe, at least in most states) unlawful, but happens frequently and is hard to prove. Discriminating against someone because they are overweight, don't dress right, or just aren't "cool", is not unlawful, but perhaps could be seen as such, which is why those things are never mentioned. And while there are probably a few high profile employment cases every year, at the same time there are millions and millions of Americans who are demoted, passed over for promotion, stuck in dead-end career tracks, or are the first to be laid off, because they somehow fall short of social expectations that have nothing to do with their job. Some of these are theoretically protected, others are not. In many (or probably most) cases, the human resources people are unaware that they are being discriminatory. When they decide that Mary isn't the right one for a promotion, they say to themselves that she doesn't seem to have the ambition to handle a high stress job--- they don't say that she has a young child, and won't take her job seriously. When Joseph is turned down for extra training in technology, they say to themselves that he isn't "flexible" or "innovative"--- not that he is 46, and can't handle computers. And so, the discrimination goes on constantly, with most people unaware that they are discriminating or being discriminated against.
There is also a fair amount of hypocrisy involved in these decisions. Whatever the complicated issues involving government, business and the individual, hypocrisy is easy to hate. I have to admit that many times I have gritted my teeth at hip, trendy liberals who enthusiastically support gay rights, who are totally unaware, or don't care, that they are discriminating against people who are less fashionable in their hardships, such as older single mothers.
While there are many complicated issues, my own instinct is that the belief that somehow it is totally allowable to discriminate against an individual, but forbidden to discriminate against a group, is not morally feasible.