A lesbian single mom is alleging that her manager at Chili’s offered her a promotion—but only if she started to “dress more gender appropriate.”
In a new complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of Arizona woman Meagan Hunter, the American Civil Liberties Union argues that the Chili’s manager discriminated against Hunter on the basis of sex.
The manager’s alleged comments about Hunter’s attire—which she describes in a blog post as “a men’s button up shirt, fitted slacks, and boat shoes”—also made her so uncomfortable, she says, that she felt like she could no longer work for him.
“Honestly, it was like a stab to the heart,” Hunter told The Daily Beast, “because I thought that he and I were very close—almost close like family. And I worked really hard at my job to succeed and move up—and I honestly feel like I was denied promotion because I was discriminated [against.]”
Hunter, who had been working as a server at a Chili’s in Phoenix, Arizona for two years at the time of the incident, says the issue first arose after she attended an informational seminar for a management training program wearing the aforementioned dress shirt and slacks.
After the seminar, Hunter says in her blog post, her manager told her that his supervisor—the district manager—didn’t approve of her choice of clothing.
Hunter claims that the district manager later interviewed her to become a shift leader and that the manager subsequently told her that she would only be given the opportunity if she wore more “gender appropriate” clothing.
“Are you telling me that I need to have my breasts hanging out to be successful in your company?” Hunter says she asked her manager.
“Not in those words,” was his alleged reply.
Hunter told The Daily Beast that she was taken aback but didn’t quit on the spot.
“I didn’t really grasp what had just happened until I went home for the night and I had some time to meditate and pray,” she said. “The next day is when I went in and turned in my time card and just expressed that I couldn’t work for the company anymore, and I had to part ways.”
In a statement to The Daily Beast, a Chili’s Grill & Bar spokesperson said the company was “alarmed by these allegations” and wanted to “set the record straight on behalf of all of our ChiliHeads.”
“Meagan Hunter was not denied a promotion at Chili’s, but instead she was identified as a high potential Team Member and offered the opportunity to be promoted into our Certified Shift Leader program to take the next step on her career journey,” said the spokesperson. “Feedback was given to her about our manager dress code guidelines, which apply to all managers regardless of gender identification or sexuality, but absolutely no mention was made of any need to conform to gender-specific clothing.”
“We will not and do not tolerate discriminatory behavior at Chili’s,” the spokesperson added. “We stand committed to the tens of thousands of ChiliHeads from all walks of life who represent what we stand for each day.”
Hunter told The Daily Beast that the company responded directly to a letter she wrote about the alleged incident, maintaining similarly that there was no discrimination.
“There was no apology, there was no acknowledgment,” she said. “It was pretty awful.”
She further told The Daily Beast that the company effectively claimed that whatever happened between her and her manager couldn’t possibly have been discrimination “because he hangs out with gay people,” as Hunter paraphrased. She is still hoping that Brinker, Chili’s parent company, will reconsider.
“I want Brinker to acknowledge this incident,” she said, “and I want to be a voice for people who are too afraid to speak out—and hopefully to raise awareness of discrimination in the workplace.”
The ACLU’s claim rests on key court rulings regarding Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans sex discrimination.
In 1989, for example, the Supreme Court ruled in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, that a woman named Ann Hopkins had been unlawfully denied partnership on the grounds that she didn’t dress and behave femininely enough.
In essence, the Supreme Court determined that discriminating against someone based on stereotypes about how a person should look or act because of their sex qualified as sex discrimination, full stop.
The EEOC—the federal agency tasked with enforcing civil rights law in the workplace—currently lists Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins on its website as an example of a court decision that supports LGBT workers under Title VII.
More recently, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in February 2018 that “sexual orientation discrimination constitutes a form of discrimination ‘because of … sex,’ in violation of Title VII,” overturning two previous decisions that “held otherwise” [PDF]. That decision was hailed as a major victory for LGBT workplace rights, in large part because it held sexual orientation discrimination was itself a form of sex stereotyping.
“When employers punish workers for who they are and what they look like, they lose valuable people like Meagan,” ACLU staffers Rita Tabacco Mar and Emma J. Roth wrote in their announcement of the EEOC complaint. “That’s not only wrong and bad for business—it’s also against the law.”
In the meantime, Hunter will be rebuilding her career in the restaurant industry.
“I’ve fallen into some financial hardship,” she told The Daily Beast. “But we’re getting through it, my son and I.”
Hunter noted in her blog post that she was unemployed for a month until finding a server job at another restaurant, where she earns less and gets fewer hours than she did at Chili’s.
“I am now working my way back up the ladder,” she wrote. “Who knows how long it will be before I am considered for a management position again.”