The short version of this column is that you shouldn’t apply to work in a restaurant or bar that asks for a photo with your resumé. The long version starts with an unpleasant story about possible discrimination in the service industry.
A university student applies for a serving job at a swanky, rooftop restaurant in downtown Toronto; her application includes a photograph. Her interview is confirmed. Soon she gets another email cancelling the interview, telling her that there is no longer a spot available. As an experiment, she resubmits her resumé, using a different name and a different photo. This time, the applicant, who is black, uses a photo of a white woman. She is immediately contacted with an interview date.
Soon after the applicant started talking about the incident on social media, the parties reached an agreement, with a joint statement posted on both the applicant’s and restaurant’s Facebook pages. The statement absolves the employer of any wrongdoing, describing the mistake as an “internal error” and adds that “there was not, and has never been, any racial profiling or prejudice” associated with the restaurant.
The applicant and restaurant have declined to discuss the matter publicly. So it’s hard to determine what exactly happened and why, though some online sleuthing reveals that the applicant voluntarily attached her headshot — she did so, she wrote on one website, because understood that to be the standard practice when applying for these jobs.
But even without knowing the particulars, the case raises broader issues: why would you attach a photo with your resumé, and what kind of establishment asks for one? Well, if you’ve ever been in a restaurant or bar where all the servers are really attractive, or have an abnormally consistent look to them, that’s the kind.
The practice is common, but not ubiquitous.
A quick scan of 10 southern Ontario job postings for servers/bartenders on Craigslist only turns up two requests for photos. Another, for a “gentleman’s lounge,” includes photos of their current service staff at work — a man in a shirt, tie, and vest; a woman in the croppiest of crop tops, a quarter shirt tied up like Daisy Duke — to let you know what’s expected.
Employers who ask for a headshot with your resumé are, to put it as politely as possible, not people you want to work for. Judging you on your appearance is not a good start to a professional relationship.
It’s hardly newsworthy that gross people do gross things. What’s surprising is that this is legal. But just barely.
The Ontario Human Rights Code, which covers hiring processes, is very clear that job interview questions about race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, creed, etc., are considered discriminatory. But the Ontario Human Rights Commission does not address the issue of photos specifically. A communications adviser tells me that it’s a violation to classify people based on these factors. And that photos, while they may serve other purposes, do classify people in this way at the application stage. It’s legal, but employers are advised not to do it: “It has long been the Commission’s position that employers should not request photos of potential employees,” the Human Rights at Work policy reads, “since they may provide information related to a number of Code-related grounds, such as race, colour, sex or age.”
David Doorey, a professor at York University who specializes in labour and employment law, says that while it may be technically allowed, it’s certainly not advisable. “While it is not per se unlawful to request a photo, it is almost certainly a dumb human resources policy. It signals to the world that how applicants look, rather than just their qualifications, is important to the hiring decision. By asking for photos, an employer is making life more difficult for itself if a human rights complaint is later filed.”
Without telling Doorey anything about the case that sparked my question, he goes on to explain the point by describing an incredibly similar situation.
“For example, if an employer hires the 'beautiful, blonde, blue-eyed' server over other servers who are equally or even more qualified, but who are not Caucasian, the request for a photo then becomes a 'smoking gun' in a human rights complaint alleging discrimination on the basis of skin colour, ethnicity, place of origin — even sex, if men applied. The employer who requested photos will have a hard time persuading anyone, especially a human rights tribunal, that its hiring decision was based on qualifications, and not the fact that the employer preferred a pretty white blonde woman over applicants who were not pretty white blonde women.”
So asking for photos with server applications is in and of itself legal, but employers are exposing themselves to a legal risk by doing it. And employees are exposing themselves to risk of exploitation if they go along with it. Voluntarily attaching a photo with your resumé may expose you to that same risk.
If it comes up in the line of your work, just remember that this practice belongs to the fraternity of bone-headed activities — flying a kite in a lightning storm, operating a jackhammer at 7 a.m., swimming slowly in the pool’s fast lane — that are technically legally, but understood to be reserved for bozos.
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