Employers have more work to do on natural hair discrimination

New survey highlights corporate America’s flailing efforts to address discrimination in the workplace.
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· 3 min read

Though many employers and HR teams continue to lift up diversity efforts in the workplace, there have been some notable stumbles when it comes to creating a work environment that nurtures the growth of Black and minority employees.

So it’s not surprising that 54% of respondents believe that people of color face discrimination at work for wearing “natural hair styles linked to racial identity,” according to a new StyleSeat survey of 1,252 Americans.

“There’s a historical context around Black employees and their hair, and how our hair is policed in society, but also in the workplace,” Shereen Daniels, managing director of HR Rewired and author of The Anti-Racist Organization, told HR Brew. “If you’re working in organizations where you are a statistical minority because of your race or ethnicity, the majority is likely to have European hair, and therefore the expectations around professionalism are going to come from a very Eurocentric standard of beauty.”

At least 20 states and many local governments have adopted the CROWN Act, and some companies, like UPS, have updated hair policies to be more inclusive, but there’s more employers need to do, according to 46% of people of color surveyed.

Right now the burden is on Black employees to “assimilate into the environment you’re going to work in” and make a choice about “forgoing parts of your identity” in order to fit in, according to Daniels. And when people of color choose to wear natural hairstyles at work, they can experience microaggressions or negative stereotyping about their competency, performance, or potential. This can affect their employee lifecycle, she added.

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Beyond the policy. Sure, as a first step, review your hair and dress policy and update it to welcome natural hairstyles. But just adding this language isn’t enough, according to Daniels.

“A sentence in a policy document, it might make everyone feel better…It doesn’t change anything overnight,” Daniels said. “The discrimination that appears is based on people’s values set in their belief systems, so just because the company says that you can do X doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be treated better and more fairly and more equitably by your line managers or by the people who make the hiring or the promotional decisions.”

HR teams need to be intentional about identifying adverse effects Black employees face because of broader cultural stereotypes and discrimination, and mitigate those impacts. Otherwise, their employees’ day-to-day experience will not change.

“How can we minimize the impact of bias and minimize the impact of discrimination that affect all aspects of the employee lifecycle? Because that’s how you codify changes,” Daniels said.

Hair discrimination is only one component of the Black experience at work, according to Daniels, who works as a consultant to help clients identify where racial discrimination shows up at the workplace, and designs remedial action to address those specific issues and organizational systems that catch and address the effects of discrimination.

“Although it’s challenging,” she said. “It’s easier to do than expecting to change the way people have been socialized, because we’ve all been socialized in society to hold particular views about standards of beauty and standards of professionalism. You can’t change that overnight.”

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