“I have rights! I can wear my hair however I want!” Does this statement sound familiar? Have you ever said this to your employer or at least wanted to say it (smile)? Or surely, this has been a topic of conversation amongst you and your friends over lunch or dinner? I know some of you are asking, “Why are we still having this discussion in the 21st Century?”
In this age of increased individual freedoms, when it comes to grooming standards in the workplace, more and more employees are challenging what is and what is not appropriate for the workplace. From tattoos, to clothing, to hair – the traditional norms of what is and what is not proper workplace attire and appearance are being questioned and challenged on all levels and across racial, ethnic and generational lines.
In the January 2014 issue of Essence Magazine, well-known blogger Patrice Grell Yursik, creator of the blog www.afrobella.com, and I discuss the topic of whether it is appropriate for Black women to wear their natural hair in the workplace. While I am someone who on any given week may wear my hair in a permed, relaxed or weaved style and then wear braided corn rolls, kinky twists or individual braids the next week, ultimately, I believe the question of how one wears her (or his) hair is an individual decision.
However, when it comes to the workplace, we must consider whether our individual choices as it relates to our hair and grooming standards possibly conflict our workplace rules and environment. Does our hair or appearance possibly impact the perceptions that people may have of us? Does it impact our ability to land that top client or to work on that big deal or to get that long awaited-promotion? Of course, there are multiple answers and various factors associated with these questions that cannot be answered in one blog post. However, we must realize that despite much advancement, we still live in a society where people often make judgments based on our appearance and those judgments often carry over into the workplace.
The key to our success in the workplace is understanding what is appropriate for an employer to regulate under the law and to find that perfect balance between choosing your individuality and being successful in our jobs.
What does the law say?
In the U.S., federal and state law protect individuals from being discriminated against on the basis of their race, ethnicity, gender and other “protected” characteristics such as disability and religion. Because an individual’s hair texture is determined based on the individual’s racial and ethnic identity, employers cannot discriminate against employees on the basis of their hair texture or based upon a person styling their hair in their natural hair texture (such as an afro) versus a processed version of their hair such as a perm or a relaxer.
So does this mean a Black woman can safely wear her dreadlocks or braids in the workplace or simply wear her hair in its natural state without any products or chemicals? The simple answer is “yes” because such styles reflect and are directly intertwined with who that woman is as a Black woman.
That said, despite our individual freedoms and “protected” statuses, employers can develop policies and guidelines requiring basic grooming standards in the workplace, including standards relating to how employees wear their hair. For example, in a restaurant environment, due to health and safety concerns, employers can require employees to wear their hair pulled back off their face or in a net. In an office environment, an employer can require employees to dress and wear their hair in a manner that is respectable and presentable and to dress neatly and in a non-offensive way. The real question is what does this mean? This of course is where the rubber meets the road and where something that is offensive or inappropriate to one person is not the same to someone else. This is where the hair debate and questions of other workplace grooming standards continues.
Tools & Tips for Addressing These Issues in Your Workplace
If you are having issues with determining whether you can wear your natural hair at your job or any other questions regarding dress and grooming standards in your workplace, I recommend you do the following:
- Review your employee handbook to see if there is a policy relating to workplace grooming standards
- If the policy is not clear or you believe something about the policy is inappropriate, speak to your human resources department or your manager or supervisor to seek clarification and support for resolving any issues or challenges you may have
- If the policy is clear and appropriate for that particular workplace, do your best to comply with the policy and to respect company guidelines
- Above all, consider your workplace environment and your goals as it relates to your employment. Whether it is your hair, your dress, your tattoos or other grooming questions and issues – ask yourself, have I positioned myself to be respected and valued in my workplace and to be positioned for future growth and opportunity? Ultimately, this is a question that only you can answer – you must find the balance between exercising your individual rights and freedoms along with your potential for success in your workplace.
What are your thoughts? I look forward to hearing them!
By Attorney Angela Reddock
Workplace Expert & Founding & Managing Partner of the Reddock Law Group of Los Angeles