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A hairy situation: Can you be fired for your hair?

Published On: Oct 30 2013 10:06:35 AM CDT
Updated On: Oct 30 2013 10:09:47 AM CDT

By attorney Melba Pearson, Special to THELAW.TV

This week, stories emerged about a woman who is in danger of losing her job at an insurance company for wearing dreadlocks. In a related story several months ago, a little girl was sent home from school for wearing dreadlocks. The common theme in both of these stories? The powers that be deemed the hairstyle to be somehow distracting or unacceptable.

Ashley Davis, from Missouri, was told that due to a change in company policy, she would have to cut her dreadlocks. She was hired with dreadlocks, but several months after her employment, the company policy changed to say that "dreadlocks, braids, mohawks, mullets and other hairstyles are against company guidelines."

Seven-year-old Tiana Parker was forced to leave her school due to their ban on dreadlocks. The school's policy stated that "hairstyles such as dreadlocks, afros, mohawks, and other faddish styles are unacceptable." Her situation is different, since the policy was in place at the time of her enrollment. Still, this is a reflection of a refusal to accept a hairstyle of a particular culture.

To give some perspective, removing your dreadlocks is not a simple process. As Ms. Davis stated in her interviews, she had been growing her dreadlocks for more than 10 years, and it is a part of her identity. Additionally, due to the permanent nature of the hairstyle, it would basically require her to shave her head, and regrow her hair.

From a legal perspective, there are several issues in Ms. Davis' case. The company hired her, then subsequently changed their policy; in light of this, a grandfather-type clause should have been applied, in which current employees would be exempt. Can the company's policy be considered to be racially discriminatory? Yes and no. Yes, because it is clear that hairstyles that apply to a certain ethnicity (dreadlocks and braids are generally worn by persons of African descent) are targeted by the policy. However, on the other side, the policy also targets mohawks and mullets. Interestingly, mullets and mohawks are not usually worn by folks seeking to work in corporate America. It had its day when the song "Achey Breaky Heart" was popular, but not so anymore. So to be practical, the wording of this policy directly targets persons of color … but is cleverly worded to avoid discrimination claims. A good lawyer wrote this policy; but a good lawyer may be able to bring the policy down.

On a day-to–day level, these policies are a result of ignorance, fear, and a tinge of racism. There is a perception that dreadlocks = drug dealer, hoodlum, or filth. This is simply not true. Dreadlocks have a long history, and quite bluntly, is an easier hairstyle to maintain as opposed to putting a myriad of chemicals in your hair on a regular basis (which is the other option to create the look of straight hair). As an attorney, I choose to wear my hair in dreadlocks. I try serious cases, including homicide cases. Depending on the occasion or trial, I wear my hair in a bun, or a tight ponytail. What style your hair is in should not matter as long as it is clean, maintained, and professionally styled for the environment you work in.

Should Ashley Davis sue her employer? Absolutely.

Will she win? Maybe not. But it is the principle … and a way to open employers' minds.

The author Melba Pearson is a prosecutor in South Florida. She Tweets at @ResLegalDiva.