Hair discrimination in the workplace

In the UK, there have been notable cases of hair discrimination in the workplace, and calls for the 2010 Equality Act to be changed to protect workers from natural hair discrimination.

author

James Rowland

Commercial Director James leads Account Management, Sales and Marketing at Neathouse Partners.

Date

28 November 2023

Updated

17 July 2024
4 min read
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Hair discrimination in the workplace
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What is hair discrimination?

Otherwise known as texture discrimination or hair bias, hair discrimination is the unfair treatment of a person based on their natural hair texture, style, or appearance.

Hair discrimination typically affects people with natural hair textures and hair that is curly, tightly curled, or worn in styles such as braids, twists, afros and dreadlocks. Victims can experience bias, prejudice and negative stereotypes in workplaces, schools, and public spaces.

Natural hair discrimination is so prevalent that there have been efforts to advocate for policies that prohibit it, and also some consideration for recognising hair as a protected characteristic under law.

 

What causes hair discrimination?

Subject Access Request (SAR) Support​

Employers or colleagues may discriminate for a number of reasons:

  • Biased judgements or perceptions may come from a lack of understanding with regard to the cultural significance of natural hairstyles.
  • Historically, beauty standards have been informed by Eurocentric ideals of straight or wavy hair, which can lead to discrimination.
  • Stereotypes and societal attitudes can create unconscious biases that can be deeply ingrained, and can influence how people view certain hairstyles.
  • Diversity and inclusion education can be instrumental in teaching employees about other cultures and their practices. A lack of this training can lead to having employees who are unaware of their biases.
  • Ignorance and stereotypes about appropriate appearance and professionalism in the workplace can lead to natural hair discrimination.
  • Companies without culturally sensitive or inclusive dress code policies may target certain hairstyles, whether inadvertently or explicitly.
  • Implicit bias comes from subconscious attitudes, while explicit bias is intentional and conscious. Hair discrimination and unfair treatment can come from either of these biases.

 

Hair discrimination in the UK: statistics

According to the World Afro Day Hair Equality Report (2019), 82.9% of young people said their hair had been touched without their consent. 58% reported being asked uncomfortable questions.

The Halo Collective, an organisation dedicated to eliminating hair discrimination, claims that 93% of Black UK residents have been victims of hair discrimination, including non-consensual hair touching. 20% of Black women feel as though they are expected to straighten their hair for work.

Halo Collective also reports that some Black employees say they experience humiliation in the workplace when they attempt to maintain their natural hair, with employers seeing their natural hair as unruly, unprofessional, or unkempt.

Wearing wigs or hair straightening in order to align with Eurocentric hair norms are acts of self-censoring that Black and minority employees say they feel they need to do to appear professional.

For people whose hair is strongly connected to their identities or cultural heritage, this is a significant sacrifice.

 

Hair discrimination and the law

Unlike the UK, in parts of the U.S, there are laws that prevent employers from banning certain hairstyles. The California Senate Bill No. 188 (the Crown Act) says that dress codes or grooming policies that prohibit natural hair have a negative affect on Black employees.

There is no similar law in the UK that prevents companies from banning certain hairstyles, so employers must take into account the Equality Act 2010 when defining their own dress codes for the workplace, and when dealing with hair discrimination. This Act makes direct and indirect discrimination, harassment, and victimisation in the workplace illegal.

Direct discrimination is favouring some employees or job applicants over others because of race, religion or nationality.

Indirect discrimination is applying a practice or provision (like a dress code policy), which applies universally to the entire workforce, regardless of any protected characteristics (race, religion or nationality). Employees with protected characteristics could find a universal policy more inconvenient than others.

Whether discrimination is intentional or not, employees can still bring legal action against an employer. In such a case, the employer would be required to prove that the policy is proportionate and reasonable.

In October 2023, a Black waitress was awarded compensation of £16,753 after suing her employer for race harassment and constructive dismissal.

Angelica Vial, 18, was working at a restaurant and had been wearing a wig to cover hair braids. Sadeq Alsafar, owner and chef of the restaurant, repeatedly suggested that Vial remove her wig before attempting to physically remove it himself, leaving her “flustered and deeply uncomfortable” and “humiliated”.

The judge hearing the case ruled that this incident, among others, amounted to racial harassment.

 

Hair discrimination in the workplace: actions employers can take

Managing HR Effectiveness

In recent years, more employers are making the effort to become more inclusive, increasing the recruitment and retention of a diverse workforce. Not only does this avoid the risk of indirect discrimination claims, but also brings the substantial benefits of a varied mix of employees from all walks of life.

More discussion about inclusivity and identity, including the importance of hair and the perils of hair discrimination, is a natural consequence of this.

There are a number of things employers can do to learn more about hair bias:

Speak up

Addressing hair discrimination and altering biases around professionalism and Black hair can be started by having conversations with employees about their identity and the importance of their hair.

Policy reviews

Any reference to hair, hairstyles or personal appearance in work policies should be reviewed and amended to avoid discrimination. Listening to employees when making these changes will ensure inclusivity and avoid indirect discrimination.

Diversity training

Diversity and equality training can be implemented by employers, along with unconscious bias and anti-racism education. Regularly refreshing training can help with reducing things like unwanted comments or unsolicited touching.

Join informative organisations

The Halo Collective has published the Halo Code, which has already been adopted by a number of companies and schools, including Unilever, Dove and the Royal Institute of British Architects. Signing the Halo Code and incorporating it into company policy enforces employees' rights to embrace Afro hairstyles, and recognises that the ethnic, racial, cultural and religious identity of Black staff is strongly connected to their hair and hairstyles.

Is hair a protected characteristic?

Hair is not specifically stated as a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. However, hairstyles that are worn because of social, cultural or family customs can aligned with the ethnicity of a person, and are therefore protected by the characteristic of race.

The Equality Act 2010 states that discrimination against others with protected characteristics, such as religion or belief, age, race, disability, sex, sexual orientation, or gender reassignment, is unlawful. Hairstyles associated with social, cultural or family customs, and therefore part of a person's ethic origin, can be covered by the protected characteristic of race.

Afro hairstyles, locks, cornrows, wigs and other head coverings are all included.

Completely banning particular hairstyles, or describing hair as “unprofessional”, “inappropriate” or “untidy” are examples of discrimination. Applying a neutral policy that disadvantages employees with a protected characteristic is indirect discrimination.

 

Get expert advice

To get support and advice from our team of professionals at Neathouse Partners can be invaluable if you have questions about hair discrimination. Our team of HR consultants and employment lawyers can help you navigate the implementation of a diverse and inclusive dress policy. 

Call 0333 041 1094 today or use our contact form.

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