A woman says her former employer, Chili’s, denied her a promotion because her clothes were not stereotypically feminine.
Meagan Hunter, a single mom living in Phoenix, Arizona, worked at Chili’s Grill & Bar for two years. She loved and excelled at her job, and she thought of her coworkers as family members.
So, when her supervisors suggested she apply for a management training program within the company, Hunter jumped at the chance.
“It was a great opportunity, and I was excited about the prospect of a promotion,” Hunter, 35, wrote in a blog post for the ACLU. “I was planning to buy a home for the first time, and the pay increase would have helped a lot.”
She attended a seminar about the training program wearing a professional button-up shirt, slacks and boat shoes, similar to what she often saw male managers wearing to work at Chili’s.
Soon after, she landed an interview with the district manager and was offered a promotion — reportedly on one condition.
“I needed to ‘dress more gender appropriate,’ in the words of my manager,” Hunter wrote in her blog post. “I asked him, ‘Are you telling me that I need to have my breasts hanging out to be successful in your company?’ He answered, ‘Not in those words.’ I asked him why I could not wear a chef-style coat like the one he was wearing and he replied, ‘It’s for boys.’”
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She later heard from coworkers that the same manager reportedly passed her over for a promotion to bartender because he “didn’t want a gay girl behind the bar.”
Shocked and hurt, Hunter quit. It wasn’t a choice she took lightly, as a single mom with a young son to support. She loved the job, and she had envisioned a long-term future for herself at the company.
But as Hunter said in her blog, “I couldn’t continue to work at a place where my willingness to conform to a stereotype was more important than my job performance.”
After she left her job, Hunter says she wrote to Chili’s to tell them what had happened, and was shocked by the response.
“They said I must be lying because the manager’s best friend is gay,” she said in her blog post. “Having a gay friend doesn’t excuse what happened to me. I was so disappointed that the company I loved didn’t even apologize or try to make things right, not just for me, but for all of the other employees who still work there.”
This month, with help from the ACLU, Hunter filed a sex discrimination complaint against Chili’s to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. If the EEOC agrees that discrimination has occurred, Hunter will then be able to file a federal lawsuit against the company.
“All too often, we see LGBTQ people judged and penalized because they don’t conform to stereotypical ideas about what it means to be a man or what it means to be a woman in today’s society,” Ria Tabacco Mar, Hunter’s attorney at the ACLU, told TODAY Style. “Meagan came forward because she doesn’t want anyone to experience what she did.”
Chili’s denies that Hunter was refused a promotion, and the company says that the manager interviewing Hunter did not bring up any gender-specific dress guidelines.
“We do not tolerate any discriminatory behavior in our restaurants. That’s why we were alarmed by these allegations and why we knew we had to set the record straight on behalf of all of our ChiliHeads,” a Chili’s Grill & Bar spokesperson said in a statement to TODAY.
“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,” the spokesperson said. “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.”
However, Hunter stands by her version of events, and her attorney challenged the company’s statement.
“Chili’s admitted that it gave her ‘feedback’ on her attire, but it hasn’t come forward and said what that feedback was,” Tabacco Mar told TODAY. “There’s nothing inappropriate about her clothes; the only thing inappropriate is telling her she can’t advance because of what she was wearing.”
Hunter’s sex discrimination complaint could take months, or even years, to move through the system, Tabacco Mar says.
In the meantime, Hunter has found a serving job at another local restaurant. She is earning significantly less there than she did at Chili’s because, as a new employee, she gets fewer hours and lower tips.
“I am now working my way back up the ladder,” Hunter said in her blog. “Who knows how long it will be before I am considered for a management position again.”
For now, her dream of buying a house is also on hold. But Hunter said it was important to take a stand, not only for herself, but for others dealing with similar situations.
In her blog, she had a message for her former manager at Chili’s.
“I am speaking out now to tell that manager — and every other person who thinks similarly — that women do not need to be stereotypically feminine in order to get a promotion or be an effective employee or manager,” she said.