Discourse surrounding the impact of unconscious bias, and other types of workplace discrimination have been a priority for employers since the emergence of the BLM movement following the murder of George Floyd. In particular, a fresh impetus on the need to confront the realities of discrimination faced by black employees brought about waves of sensitivity trainings, recruitment quotas and unconscious bias workshops. All steps in the right direction, and a reflection of employers' commitments to making real change, however, decades of exclusionary policies have meant that some discriminatory practices remain covert and almost imperceptible (except by those on the receiving end). Hair discrimination in the workplace is one such form of discrimination. Hair discrimination involves the ostracising of hairstyles and textures more commonly found in marginalised groups. This is a very subtle form of discrimination, but hairstyles that have been historically deemed unprofessional typically follow racial lines. A quick google image search of the term “unprofessional hairstyle for work” will paint a very clear picture. Hairstyles such as braids, afros, twist and dreadlocks, all traditionally worn by black employees are disproportionately represented in what is considered to be unprofessional.
Black employees, particularly women, are most likely to bare the brunt of these exclusionary ideas of what is deemed to be a professional hairstyle. The consequences of this being that employers who enforce hairstyle restrictions risk opening themselves up to claims of discrimination by aggrieved employees.
The law as things stand means that employers may have their own dress codes for work and impose certain standards that can include acceptable hairstyles. However, where those standards are exclusionary, or are more difficult to comply with for those who belong to specific ethnicity groups then employers will be required to explain how such a policy is proportionate. Employers should also bear in mind that under the Equality Act 2010, an employee can bring an action for indirect discrimination where a rule that is applied universally to the workforce, disproportionately impacts them. This will be a likely consequence where dress code policies are geared toward euro-centric hairstyles.
Furthermore, while there is no explicit legislation dealing with hair discrimination just yet, the pressure is mounting. With some MPs recently lobbying to have hair legislated as its own protected characteristic under the Equalities Act.
Whilst there is more of a push than ever on the government to legislate on this issue, employers can still do their part now.
Firstly, by listening. HALO, a collective dedicated to ending hair discrimination, found that 1 in 5 black women felt the need to straighten their hair for work, and 93% of black people have faced microaggressions that involve their hair. These included unwanted touching and comments from other employees. Listening to black employees and allowing the representation of their hairstyles in the workplace will go an incredibly long way to combat the stigma of unprofessionalism that has surrounded certain hair types. Furthermore, hair discrimination is a lesser-known form of discrimination. Allowing the space for black employees to speak on their experiences and the importance of their hair to their identity will be invaluable to tearing down these biases.
Employers can also work to adjust their policies before any legislative amendments come into force, to make sure any professional standards they set regarding appearance are not discriminatory in anyway. Dress code policies perhaps could be drafted around relevant business needs, as opposed to the perception of professionalism which can be rooted in unconscious bias and the exclusion of certain racialised features.
Employers should also take it on themselves to act proportionately and appropriately. In the instances where black employees do violate the dress code, employers must ensure any responses protect the dignity and respect of their employees.
Ultimately, as employers strive to realise a more diverse and inclusive workspace, far more awareness will be brought to less obvious forms of discrimination. Hair discrimination will gain more attention in the years to come, and so now is the time for employers to stay ahead of the curve by addressing these matters.