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Black History Month: Combating Natural Hair Bias in the Workplace

February 23, 2021

Black women are 1.5 times more likely to be sent home from the workplace because of their hair. From the interview process to promoting diverse talent, organizations need to recognize and address such microaggressions that impede the success of their Black employees. Every company will face its own challenges, but this one in particular – hair – starts at the top.

Prior to my first job in corporate America, I had been wearing my hair natural for two years after chemical perms and extremely damaged hair from straightening it consistently for 25 years. It had been a journey and a struggle, one that every Black woman shares even if her route is not specifically about transitioning, but one that I was proud of. Even so, upon graduation I feared going to an interview with my hair in big, wavy coils. So, I straightened it. For me, securing a future for my child was more important than remaining true to myself.

It took some time, but I come to work as I am now.

With even more Black women choosing to wear their hair in its natural, textured state or in protective styles, such as braids, twists, locs and knots, in the workplace, leadership needs to create a company culture that embraces the shift and, in fact, encourages authentic self-expression not only with hair, but in all aspects.

Hair discrimination among Black women has captured so much attention that U.S. federal legislation was initiated in 2019 with the goal of protecting Black women from being discriminated against – being seen as less professional or competent or risk losing their jobs – when choosing to wear their naturally textured hair or protective hairstyles. This legislation is still pending.

While some states and cities have enacted the bill, there are some where this type of discrimination is still legal. I’m happy to see laws are being put in place to protect us, but there is more work that needs to be done to normalize Black hair within company culture; to value a woman’s professional performance instead of combatting her natural physical appearance. This may seem like a small problem to some but embracing this much-needed change symbolizes eradicating the choice between surviving and thriving for Black women.

To combat hair and other biases, organizations should follow these best practices:

1. Eliminate discriminatory language in policies around appearance. Dress code and appearance guidelines are standard for most organizations, but policies should be evaluated to remove language and actions that discriminate against employees’ immutable characteristics. Even implicit language should be evaluated.

2. Train employees. When conducting interviews or promoting staff for achievements and accolades, bias can unconsciously creep in due to societal norms, limited exposure, etc. This often leads to unintentional or purposeful discrimination which perpetuates the advancement of individuals from the majority group over those who are Black. Training on conscious inclusion is needed to break down these barriers and level the odds for diverse employees and candidates with similar aptitudes and abilities as their peers.

3. Ensure diversity is reflected both within and beyond the walls of your organization. This is twofold. Internally, it’s important to have people of all backgrounds represented throughout your organization. Black interns are just as important as Black vice presidents. This ensures everyone has a voice and is exposed to a diversity of topics and POVs, helping to nurture a culture of understanding.

Externally, it’s just as important that organizations reflect diversity accurately on websites, social channels and resources that potential employees may encounter. For example, when researching new job opportunities, if I see someone who looks like me on the organization’s website, it reinforces that diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) is touted as a priority for the organization.

While keeping all this in mind, remember that hair is only one of many barriers to hiring and retaining Black employees. As your organization reflects on commitments and initiatives, check out True Self x True MOSAIC to learn how to authentically engage on DE&I. As we continue to put in the work, I hope to see future generations, including my kids, being valued for themselves – not having to choose between their livelihood and remaining true to who they are. This must be accomplished through the united efforts of advocates, leadership and organizations enforcing DE&I.