On Understanding and Embracing Natural Hair in the Workplace

In 2020, discrimination against people with afro-textured hair should no longer be a thing. But it is.

Employers can’t discriminate against employees based on their ethnicity, national origin or skin tone. But what happens when an employer discriminates against an employee based on the way they wear their hair? Discrimination against natural hair in the workplace is an all-too-common injustice that typically targets people with afro-textured hair. 

Both conscious and unconscious biases around natural hair shape this form of discrimination. Regardless of our backgrounds, society sends all of us messages about the kind of person who wears certain hairstyles. People who wear their hair in afros are militant. Those who wear their hair in locks are drug users. People who wear their hair slicked back in low buns are professional. While we can’t help the biases we’ve internalized, we can become aware of them and fight back. Creating a company culture that welcomes natural hair in the workplace is one important step. 

While we can’t help the biases we’ve internalized, we can become aware of them and fight back.

The legal landscape

In general, employers can place limits on the way employees wear their hair at work. Usually found in employee handbooks, these limits set standards for what a given employer considers “professional” in the workplace. Whether intended or not, the number of court cases shows that these standards have an adverse impact on people with afro-textured hair, which has historically been portrayed as “unprofessional” in Western culture. 

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. This law is often used as the basis of discrimination lawsuits when an employee is fired because of their hair. The argument for many complainants is that their hair is related to their race. It’s important to note that many of these cases often hinge not on hair texture, but on hairstyle.

Adverse employment decisions made on the basis of afro-textured hair, an immutable race-based characteristic, are generally prohibited under Title VII. When it comes to how someone styles their afro-textured hair, though, courts tend to see that as a choice. Because of this, most employers can legally deem certain styles unacceptable in the workplace.

The role of intersectionality

It is important to examine courts’ reasoning that certain hairstyles are a choice. Implicit in this ruling is an understanding of race-based discrimination that ignores the interplay between race and gender. An employer that prohibits locks in the workplace, for example, would technically be enforcing this restriction on all employees, regardless of race or gender. 

For men who have locks to comply and keep their job, they would simply have to cut their hair. This would be a socially acceptable hairstyle. Women with locks who don’t have afro-textured hair can usually remove the locks and keep their hair length. For black women with locks, however, removing their locks typically requires cutting their hair which, for women, is much less socially acceptable.

This gets to the important notion of intersectionality. Coined by law professor and advocate Kimberle Crenshaw, intersectionality “examines the overlapping systems of oppression and discrimination that women face, based not just on gender but on ethnicity, sexuality, economic background and a number of other axes.” On the issue of hair in the workplace, black women’s identities as both female and black creates a heightened burden that courts rarely acknowledge. 

Intersectionality examines the overlapping systems of oppression and discrimination that women face, based not just on gender but on ethnicity, sexuality, economic background and a number of other axes.

Evolving laws

This legal landscape is evolving, though. In July 2019, California became the first state to prohibit discrimination based on hairstyle or hair texture. The state achieved this with the passage of the CROWN (Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair) Act. This Act specifically includes afros, braids, twists and locks in the list of hairstyles against which an employer cannot discriminate. 

Other municipalities are following suit. New York City enacted an ordinance to protect job applicants and employees from discrimination based on natural hair or hairstyles that are associated with their racial, ethnic or cultural identities. Of course, whether it’s legal or not, treating an employee differently because of the way they wear their hair creates a culture that alienates black employees in particular. 

In introducing the CROWN Act, Senator Holly J. Mitchell pointed out that “the struggle to maintain what society has deemed a ‘professional image’ while protecting the health and integrity of their hair remains a defining and paradoxical struggle in (black employees’) work experience, not usually shared by their non-black peers.” 

The struggle is real. An estimated 90% of black women have straightened their hair at some point. Besides the time and money it takes to straighten afro-textured hair, many straightening agents can cause serious damage, including inflammation, chemical burns and hair loss. While straight hair is a personal preference for many black women, there are others who only straighten their hair to conform to social norms.

Why it matters

The impact of stereotypes about hair go far beyond the four walls of your workplace. Sociologist Chelsea Johnson, Ph.D., has spent years researching the natural hair movement — an emerging network of black women who are embracing their natural hair texture rather than straightening it. Her research has found that “racializing (natural) hair as inferior has been a key ideological tactic in denying black people social, economic, and political power.” 

Indeed the roots of the term “nappy” — a word used to describe afro-textured hair — are based in slavery. The tuft which forms on cotton prior to harvesting is called a nap. The term was adapted by slave owners to describe afro-textured hair because of the perceived similarity. More significantly, calling attention to the difference in hair texture was used to demean enslaved black people as less physically desirable than white people. 

Black people aren’t the only ones who feel the stigma. Julissa Prado, founder of Rizos Curls, notes that in the Latino neighborhoods she grew up in, “I always saw the women around me straightening their hair. Whether it was wavy or coily, it was embedded into our head that wearing it natural was unprofessional.” The message was clear: your natural self is not good enough.

Workplace policies 

The first step in creating a workplace that is inclusive of natural hair is to examine your company’s policies. If you have policies in place that address employee appearance, you have two choices. First, you can reword the policies to make sure that they are not unfairly burdening certain groups. Moreover, you can explicitly call out that grooming styles informed by ethnicity or religion are not restricted. 

The other approach you can take is to get rid of policies on employee appearance altogether. Respecting employees’ decisions about their appearance is key to building an inclusive company culture. Beyond minimizing the risk of alienating employees who wear natural hair in the workplace, this choice benefits all employees. 

In a survey on workplace dress codes, 8 in 10 respondents with a dress code say they don’t feel it is useful at all. Even more important, almost two-thirds of respondents say they’d be more productive and happier if they could dress however they wanted. Giving employees freedom of choice when it comes to their appearance lets them bring their whole selves to work. It’s a benefit that doesn’t cost anything, but helps attract, retain and engage talent. 

Giving employees freedom of choice when it comes to their appearance lets them bring their whole selves to work. It’s a benefit that doesn’t cost anything, but helps attract, retain and engage talent. 

Beyond policy

Beyond policy, company culture matters. It’s important to create a workplace in which employees with natural hair don’t feel pressured to conform or explain themselves. Whether the curiosity is well-intentioned or not, discussing a colleague’s hair style or texture is inappropriate. Women of color in particular already feel pressure to conform to Euro-centric standards of beauty and professionalism. Calling out their hairstyle or texture only further serves to “other” them and question their place at your company. 

Whether it is outright discrimination or more subtle microaggressions against natural hair in the workplace, policies and comments that call out difference send the message that certain people don’t belong there. When people receive that message, they stop applying to your company’s open positions or start looking for employment elsewhere. As a result, your company misses out on the innovation their diverse perspective could bring to the products and services you’re offering. 

On the other hand, when you create a workplace that embraces natural hair, employees feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to work. When this happens, they no longer carry the emotional burden of responding to questions about their hair at work or the physical and financial burden of straightening their hair. As a workplace, you’ll have an employee population that knows their diversity is respected and welcome. As a business, you’ll create more innovative products and services and reach a more diverse customer base. 

The choice is yours, and the right one starts with creating a workplace that embraces everyone.

Kelli Newman Mason is Head of Talent at New Knowledge. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and two young sons.