Natural Hair In The Workplace

By: Rashad Phillips

Tracy Sanders, a Los Angeles-based attorney and author of Natural Hair In The Workplace: What Are Your Rights? was inspired to write her new book after transitioning to natural hair over the past two years. After going natural, Sanders began conducting extensive research about the connection between natural hair and employment discrimination. Below is my interview with Tracy Sanders about natural hair and the law.

Phillips: How is natural hair a workplace issue?

Sanders: Some people could be completely unaware of this issue because their hair isn’t a workplace issue. However, if a person works in a restricted work environment then wearing Afros, Braids or Dreadlocks might not be allowed. In my book, I discussed a case where an African American female was employed at an airline company, as a ticket agent, and this airline company had a policy that banned natural hairstyles, meaning braids or corn-rows. The African American airline employee decided to wear Corn-rows regardless of the hairstyle ban. Due to her violating the hairstyle ban, she was terminated and she filed a legal suit against the airline on the basis of racial discrimination. But she did not prevail because the court ruled that the hairstyle ban was not restricted to people of African-American descent (the ban included all races and ethnic backgrounds).  Also, the court deemed that her corn-rows were artificial since they were not growing out of her scalp which meant that she could have changed the hairstyle and remained employed.

Phillips: If an employee has been at her job for five years and she is considering going natural for health reasons. How does the employee navigate this situation?  

Sanders: We don’t want to go around announcing details related to our health. However, income is important and this is tied to livelihood, so if you are transitioning, I think the wise thing to do is not to bring attention to yourself by possibly going around announcing whatever may be going on with your hair. I don’t think it is necessary for an employee to go in and have a heart to heart with a supervisor. I think the best thing to do is to consult with the natural hairstylist, explain your environment, and use your best judgement based your company’s dress code and grooming policy.

Phillips: What if an employee’s boss has an issue with her hair but the employee handbook doesn’t address hairstyles?

Sanders: If the boss has a problem, we have to examine the facts. Does the boss have a personal bias which may be illegal versus a written workplace grooming code which is neutral?   If it is personal bias, that maybe problematic. If it is something that is in writing and it is written in a neutral manner (not targeting particular groups), then that’s a different situation. I suggest that the employee speak with her supervisor while simultaneously consulting an employment lawyer. Also, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has a section that is entitled; Appearance and Grooming Standard. EEOC’s Appearance and Grooming Standards says employers may establish hair rules but there are certain conditions regarding the hairstyle rules to prevent discrimination in the workplace.

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