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A hairy problem: Cut biased grooming rules

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Here’s a warning about general grooming standards and disciplining employees over their hairstyle choices: Make sure you apply the same standards to all employees and don’t end up forbidding members of a particular protected class to wear hairstyles that are OK for other workers.

For example, if black or Hispanic employees are punished for braiding their hair, but white employees aren’t, you may be looking at a race or national-origin ­discrimination lawsuit.

Recent case: Carmelita, who is black and of Hispanic origin, worked in housekeeping at a resort in the Poconos. She received a handbook that specified grooming standards, including one that required hair to be worn in a “conservative” style and off the shoulders or tied back if long.

Supervisors were allowed to interpret “conservative.” Em­­ployees were told that braids were fine as long as they didn’t allow an “excessive” amount of the employee’s scalp to show.

Even so, Carmelita was fired after she refused to remove the braids from her hair.

She sued, alleging that only black or Hispanic workers were punished for wearing braids, while white workers were not disciplined or fired for ­having various braid styles, such as French braids. She told the court that her braids didn’t expose her scalp.

The court sided with Carme­lita, noting that several other employees of color were fired for wearing cornrow braids, but that no white workers were. This, the judge concluded, was proof that Carmelita and the others were singled out based on their race or ethnicity, and not because the actual hairstyle violated grooming standards. It noted that no one in management said Carmelita’s braids exposed her scalp, so she hadn’t violated the grooming rule. The court awarded her $25,000. (Vazquez v. Caesar’s Paradise Stream Resort, No. 3:CV-09-0625, MD PA, 2013)

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