Four ways bias hair shows up in the workplace

When striving to create an equitable and justice-oriented workplace, it is important to examine the unique forms of oppression that different communities face in order to develop interventions that address workplace harms. A pervasive issue that doesn’t get enough attention is hair discrimination and the specific ways in which this type of bias manifests itself in the workplace. The bias that Afro-textured hair and Afrocentric/Black hairstyles face is the product of an anti-Black system. The term “black hair” in this article will be used to refer to both Afro-textured hair and Afrocentric/Black hairstyles. This article seeks to explore four ways in which hair bias manifests itself in the workplace and provides suggestions for creating a fairer workplace for everyone.

1. Discriminatory policies. Many workplaces have specific policies on professionalism and appearance expectations that can have a disparate impact, or unintended discrimination, for black employees. Grooming policies that include vague requirements on “professional” hairstyles should be updated to specifically describe what hairstyles are acceptable (and why). It’s important to keep in mind that leadership and customer preference are not valid justification for banning black hair. If you have an employment policy that restricts a hairstyle like braids, for example, is there a valid reason why braids would prevent an employee from carrying out their duties? Have an equity consultant periodically evaluate employment policies and practices to make sure they don’t unintentionally discriminate against any part of your workforce.

2. Hiring bias. Dark hair can trigger an individual’s unconscious biases and make a candidate less desirable to employers. Unsurprisingly, black women with black hairstyles received negative ratings when applying for jobs, according to a 2020 research study. Over the decades, there have been a plethora of cases where job applicants have been denied jobs because of black hairstyles, including the recent cases of Jeffrey Thornton and Chastity Jones. Employers should ensure that hiring practices are objective and anti-racist, and that tools like rubrics or scorecards are used during the hiring process. There is still a lack of understanding when it comes to black hair discrimination – recruitment professionals should also receive training on black hair discrimination and the ways it can manifest in the workplace.

3. Microaggressions. In addition to discriminatory policies and unconscious biases that creep into the hiring process, black employees also experience hair-related microaggressions. Before the pandemic, black employees were being asked by non-black employees if their hair could be affected. Even in a remote work environment, these racial microaggressions continue. Black employees may be asked about a new hairstyle they’re wearing or questioned about whether their hair is real. It’s not often asked how these kinds of questions can make a person feel different and dehumanized – these questions are rarely asked of non-black colleagues. Microaggression workshops should be offered and should include an exploration of black hair-related microaggressions and their impact on employees on the receiving side.

4. Unfair treatment. A hairstyle deemed “too black” can not only thwart a person’s likelihood of being hired, but the discrimination continues once an employee is hired into a workplace. Black employees who switch from a more “professional” hairstyle (read: white/Eurocentric) to a black hairstyle find that they may experience unfair treatment from leaders and their peers. In addition to hiring biases, some employees were fired for their black hair. There are several cases that further illustrate this, including the stories of Brittany Noble Jones and Imani Jackson. It is easy to hide discrimination under the guise of poor performance. Performance appraisal processes should be as impartial as possible. Similar to the tools used in job interviews to make the process fairer, performance reviews should include objective practices like benchmarking and employee scorecards. If black hair somehow violates workplace policies, there should be a legitimate business reason the policy is in place. It’s important for employers to be aware of legislation like the CROWN Act, which provides statewide protections against discrimination based on race.