Workplace discrimination is a serious problem. Federal laws prohibiting discrimination because of age, race, gender and religion protect workers from hostile work environments. Discrimination based on someone’s hairstyle is not addressed by federal law. Hair is versatile, so you and your friends can choose many different styles and colors for going to work. Unfortunately, some hairstyles can elicit unwanted attention in the workplace. A policy that singles out styles favored by a racial or ethnic minority can, however, result in discrimination.
Discrimination means to treat an individual differently on the basis of class, race, gender or another quantifiable characteristic. However, anti-discrimination laws do not necessarily keep pace with the changing workplace environment. A subtler form of discrimination occurs when individuals are called out for having hairstyles outside of the norm. In some cases, minority workers become targets for their ethnic hairstyles. Since no laws specifically relate to women’s hairstyles, companies are free to write their own policies regarding appearance.
When it comes to policing hairstyles in the office, some companies leave it up to supervisors to interpret company policy. Companies often address hairstyles in employee manuals. The wording is typically vague, calling for employees to have a neat appearance or to avoid extreme hairstyles. Deciding what is an extreme hairstyle is very subjective. Corporations with a more public image, such as amusement parks, may ban braids, dreadlocks, brightly colored hair and extreme cuts, such as mohawks.
Hairstyle Discrimination in the News
Dreadlocks, braids and afros are the hairstyles of choice for many blacks. Unfortunately, these styles create a problem for human resource managers tasked with getting employees to follow company policies. When hairstyles clash with the company code, problems arise. In Fredericksburg, Virginia, two correctional officers were threatened with termination for their hairstyles. One woman wore cornrows while the other had dreadlocks. Both styles are short and cropped, but they were informed that their looks were considered extreme. The employee policy specifically forbids those hairstyles. A similar incident occurred at "Glamour" magazine when an associate editor made remarks cautioning against wearing ethnic hairstyles.
Avoiding Hairstyle Harassment
Adopting new hairstyles is always fun, however there are some caveats. If you work in a professional environment or have a job in the public eye, you may want to check your employee handbook before trying the latest cut or dye job. In the case of vague guidelines, run it by your manager first. If you feel that your hairstyle does not violate company policy yet you are experiencing discrimination, talk to your human resources representative. Workplace discrimination is a serious thing and should not be tolerated.
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