‘Hairstyle discrimination’ potential trap for employers

Every employer wants their workers to represent the company well. This often means requiring that they maintain a “professional look.” And each employer has his or her own idea of what constitutes “neat, clean and professional.”

But employers’ notions of what constitutes an appropriate “look” for the workplace can also be based on implicit biases embedded in their own culture, which is often the majority culture, and may be seen as a proxy for discrimination.

Nowhere is this truer than with hairstyles, particularly hairstyles associated with African American culture, such as dreadlocks, Afros, cornrows and twists. In fact, Dove, the maker of personal-care products, conducted a study of more than 2,000 women in the corporate world and found that African Americans were 50 percent more likely than white women to be sent home from work because of their hairstyles, and another 80 percent felt pressured to change their hairstyles. Black women also were 30 percent more likely than white women to report being given a formal grooming policy to review during the hiring or orientation process. In most cases, these hairstyles were worn in a groomed manner that only came across as “unprofessional” due to stereotyping or bias.

In response, New York, California and New Jersey passed laws outlawing workplace discrimination or grooming guidelines based on traits historically associated with race, including hair texture and hairstyles. At least a half-dozen other states and localities have such laws in the works too. Such laws allow workers to take employers to court over grooming or appearance policies that ban, limit or restrict natural hair or hairstyles associated with a certain culture. But even in places that haven’t passed such laws, a worker might still be able to sustain a traditional workplace discrimination claim if they can prove a negative employment action (being fired, demoted, denied a promotion or turned down for a job) related to their appearance is rooted in racial, ethnic or religious bias.

If you’re concerned about your own workplace policies, check in with an employment attorney to make sure you’re doing things right.

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