African-Americans face a dilemma when entering and thriving in today's workforce: whether or not to wear their natural hair to work. Wearing your hair the way nature intended means it is devoid of chemicals that change its constitution. Instead of chemically-straightened hair, which may result in chemical burns, there are afros, cornrows, or dreadlocks. While these hairstyles are perfectly natural, many people still don't feel comfortable with natural hair at work. There are a few things workplaces can do to help combat this kind of discrimination.
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's Manual on Race Discrimination, anything that discriminates based on physical characteristics, including a person's hair, is prohibited. It goes on to say that any appearance standards must be neutral and applied to all racial and ethnic groups. If it has a disparate effect, the standard must be related to the ability to perform the job. The manual also states that policies requiring hair to be "neat, clean and well-groomed" is unlawful if it prevents a natural afro from being worn.
In the EEOC's Compliance Manual on Religious Discrimination, an employer's dress or grooming policy may be forfeited if it conflicts with an employee's religious beliefs or practices. For example, shaving a beard or growing out the length of one's hair. The EEOC manual also states that employers may relax their policies by allowing certain ethnic groups, for instance, allowing them to pull their hair back in a hair tie.
Review your company policy to ensure how it is applied and enforced with respect to your employees' origin, religion, race and ethnicity. Watch out for subjective interpretations of the guidelines, making sure to give room to people who the grooming standards may conflict with. Provide employees with flexibility around the company grooming standards to avoid accidentally discriminating against natural hair.
Define what constitutes extreme hair. Many people end up discriminating against natural hair because they don't understand the necessary styling options when dealing with natural hair. For instance, many companies may label cornrows, dreadlocks and twists as extreme when they actually have a purpose for natural hair -- retaining length and protecting ends. What may seen as extreme to the company is actually quite normal, and it may even feel a bit discriminatory if the person is asked to wear a more "conventional" hairstyle.
Johnny Kilhefner is a writer with a focus on technology, design and marketing. Writing for more than five years, he has contributed to Writer's Weekly, PopMatters, Bridged Design and APMP, among many other outlets.