An insurance claims processing company in Alabama, Catastrophe Management Solutions (CMS), refused to hire Chastity Jones, a Black woman, because she has dreadlocks. In a 3-0 decision, the 11th U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in favor of CMS last week, asserting that it’s legal for companies to refuse employment based on hairstyles.
Jones said she was planning to begin a position at CMS in 2010, when a white human resources representative told her she must get rid of her dreadlocks, as they “tend to get messy.” The company rescinded her offer of employment when Jones refused to change her hairstyle.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a race discrimination lawsuit against CMS on behalf of Jones in 2013, stating, “Dreadlocks are a manner of wearing the hair that is physiologically and culturally associated with people of African descent.”
U.S. Circuit Judge Adalberto Jordan upheld a claim from a 2014 ruling by an Alabama federal judge that found the company’s hairstyle policy did not violate federal anti-discrimination law as racial discrimination had to be based on characteristics that didn’t change.
Jordan wrote for the September 15 ruling, “Discrimination on the basis of Black hair texture (an immutable characteristic) is prohibited by Title VII, while adverse action on the basis of Black hairstyle (a mutable choice) is not.”
In other words, the court does not consider dreadlocks an immutable or unchangeable characteristic that is only specific to Black people (even if the hairstyle is mostly worn by Black people). Therefore, telling a Black employee he or she cannot wear dreadlocks is not racial discrimination.
But if a sizeable segment of the Black population wears dreadlocks, Black women in particular, what impact will this ruling have in corporate America?
“As we’ve come to appreciate our diverse beauty and the unique kinks and curls of our hair, some of us have embraced our natural hairstyles and wear locs and braids with pride and appreciation for our heritage and love of our hair texture,” said Lissiah Taylor Hundley, diversity and inclusion strategist for Cox Enterprises (No. 18 on the 2016 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list).
“With all of this considered, how can the court or an employer feel they have a right to strip us of this option to wear whatever hairstyle we chose? That in itself is a concern.”
In her role at Cox, Hundley is the company’s senior diversity and inclusion subject matter expert, and an advisor to leadership and stakeholder groups across the enterprise. DiversityInc asked Hundley about her personal experience having worn dreadlocks in corporate America, and the implications of the court ruling.
Q. As someone who has worn dreadlocks in a corporate setting, did you experience discrimination?
A. Fortunately for me, no one blatantly expressed their bias or issues with my hair; however, looks and questions can be just as impactful. I often received comments or questions from employees about my hair. The curiosity alone just floored me. I usually wore my hair in a more conservative style during the day, pulled back into a bun. However, even when I wore it down, it could never be described as messy. That statement alone reflects bias, and is offensive to me.
When I was seeking a corporate role in the finance industry I did receive some coaching from a senior leader who asked me to “think” about my hairstyle.
He said he would never tell me to cut it, but he reminded me of the lack of diversity in leadership and the perceptions some people have of locs and other natural hairstyles. Although the conversation may have been in good will, it left me with a sense of anxiety and concern. I ended up cutting my hair. I got the job, but I never knew if my hair would have been a derailer. I definitely regretted it, but it helped shape my position and support I now provide to others who seek to wear locs and other styles in the workplace. We should be able to be our authentic selves.
Q. What implications will this ruling have in regard to natural hair in the workplace? Will some companies reconsider allowing Black women and men to be his or her authentic self?
A. I sincerely hope this is not the end. I was not surprised by the decision, but I was extremely disappointed with the ruling. The precedent it sets could be detrimental to the employment of key, high-performing, diverse talent — not to mention early career talent like millennials who may refuse to let go of their authentic selves.
If a company is known for their lack of diversity, they will lose in the war for talent. As we know, diverse talent enables us to connect into our communities, develop products and services that meet the needs of diverse consumers, and drive innovation in the workplace. Companies seeking sustainability must think carefully before discriminating against candidates and employees based on their hairstyles.
Unfortunately there are some companies or leaders who are not as far along on the “diversity journey.” They will feel better about themselves and their beliefs, and they’ll consider the ruling as justification for their biased views. Those companies and leaders may be successful now, but will they be around in the future? Our country is becoming more and more diverse by the day. The minority is quickly becoming the majority. Companies that embrace diversity, inclusion and the uniqueness and individuality of its employees and customers will be around in the future; those who don’t … good luck.
Q. How can companies effectively educate HR professionals on cultural differences and address unconscious bias?
A. Diversity and inclusion leaders can be a valuable resource. We work closely with our HR professionals and talent acquisition teams, and we’re consultants and advisors to the business.
As a part of our strategic plans, we should have a learning/education component that drives awareness and education across our companies. General diversity and inclusion training, cultural competency training and bias specific training can mitigate some of these issues. Our communications strategies should also reflect the diversity of our workforce and communities.
The media has a huge influence on bias and perceptions. Imagine the inclusive message a company would send if they used ads and media with professional-looking Black women with natural hair.
In addition, we must also understand that awareness, education and communication are solely not enough. We also need to partner with our leaders and HR professionals to develop core policies, processes and procedures that reinforce these learnings. If you have a brain, you’re biased, so this can’t be a one-and-done kind of initiative. It requires ongoing, consistent focus and support.