Volume 1, Issue 1, Article 11 - 2018


Let My Hair Be Me:
An Investigation of Employee Authenticity and Organizational Appearance Policies Through the Lens of Black Women’s Hair

 

BY TINA OPIE


 

Abstract:

Appearance policies — formal or informal dress codes that set organizational expectations for how employees “should” appear at work (Pratt & Rafaeli, 1997; Society for Human Resource Management, 2016) are typically based on Eurocentric ideals of professionalism (Bell & Nkomo, 2003). Appearance policies are often enforced by well-intentioned managers striving to foster a professional workforce (Society for Human Resource Management, 2016), yet such policies may conflict with increasing organizational efforts to encourage employee authenticity. The current paper investigates how men, the primary decision-makers in the workplace, evaluate Black women’s Afrocentric hair at work. The paper focuses on Black women because they are often at the bottom of the workplace hierarchy (Catalyst, 2016b) and are confronted with both gender and racial inequities. The paper focuses on hair because it is a visual display of identity (Opie & Phillips, 2015) and fashion (Barnard, 2014) that may reflect how individuals choose to express their authenticity (Opie & Freeman, 2017). Further, hair is subjectively evaluated based on societal notions of professionalism, making Black women’s hair a helpful, intersectional lens through which to investigate the gendered and racialized bounds of workplace appearance.

 

KEYWORDS:

  • Black women’s hair
  • appearance policies
  • dress codes
  • authenticity
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Organizations manage employee appearance using appearance policies — formal or informal dress codes that set organizational expectations for how employees “should” appear at work (Pratt & Rafaeli, 1997; Society for Human Resource Management, 2016). Typically based on Eurocentric ideals of professionalism (Bell & Nkomo, 2003), appearance policies are often enforced by well-intentioned managers striving to foster a professional workforce (Society for Human Resource Management, 2016). Given the taken-for-granted status of appearance policies, it is rare for organizations to have robust discussions about the necessity and possible negative consequences of these policies. This is unfortunate because conformity to appearance policies may have significant negative implications for employees’ workplace success, as employees who violate appearance policies may be reprimanded, reassigned, or terminated. Appearance policies are supported by the law (Caldwell, 1991) and leading human resource organizations provide guidance on how to control employee appearance (Society for Human Resource Management, 2016). Interestingly, although organizations may be working hard to control employee appearance, research illustrates that the concept of authenticity, also referred to as “bring your whole self to work,” has far-reaching benefits for organizations and employees.  Specifically, when employees exercise individual agency by sharing aspects of their identity, organizational cultures may become more inclusive and organizations and individuals alike may benefit (Chraibi & Cukier, 2017).

       While appearance policies may help organizations in various sectors and locales (e.g., businesses, hospitals, militaries, non-profits, etc. around the globe) manage customer perceptions and reinforce consistent organizational branding, such policies may conflict with increasing organizational efforts to encourage employee authenticity. Authenticity is a fundamental component of human thriving (Kernis & Goldman, 2006) and is defined as the “alignment between one’s internal experiences and external expressions” (Roberts, Cha, Hewlin, & Settles, 2009, p. 3). 

 
 

Thus, employee authenticity refers to employees’ sense that, in the workplace, their internal experiences and external expressions are aligned. Appearance is a visual indicator of authenticity that may manifest in employees’ choices about how to dress, style their hair, whether or not to wear religious garb or to wear makeup, etc.

 
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Appearance choices are identity-relevant as they help to define and distinguish cultural and subcultural groups (Keblusek & Giles, 2017). Further, employee choice about appearance may reflect personal effort to express unique aspects of the self. Appearance policies may inhibit employee authenticity, particularly disadvantaging employees with appearances that deviate from Eurocentric (Bell & Nkomo, 2003; Rosette & Dumas, 2007), heteronormative, masculine norms (Barry, 2015). Inhibiting employee authenticity may have negative consequences for employees and organizations. Research indicates that employees who involuntarily conform to organizational norms may experience painful psychological distress and a sense of meaninglessness (Erickson & Wharton, 1997; Hochschild, 2012). As time passes, inauthenticity may contribute to emotional exhaustion, guilt, and shame, and less desire to stay within an organization (Hewlin, 2009). Is it worth it to organizations to enforce appearance policies given the negative consequences of employee inauthenticity?

       A critical first step in this line of inquiry about appearance policies and employee authenticity is to document current attitudes about employee appearance that may deviate from Eurocentric ideals of professionalism. 

 
 

The current paper investigates how men, the primary decision-makers in the workplace, evaluate Black women’s Afrocentric hair at work.

 
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The paper focuses on women because despite progressing into most fields of employment, earning Board seats, CEO posts, and other top executive positions, women as a whole continue to experience workplace inequities. The paper focuses on Black women because they are often at the bottom of the workplace hierarchy (Catalyst, 2016b) and are confronted with both gender and racial inequities. The paper focuses on hair because it is a visual display of identity (Opie & Phillips, 2015) and fashion (Barnard, 2014) that may reflect how individuals choose to express their authenticity (Opie & Freeman, 2017). Further, hair is subjectively evaluated based on societal notions of professionalism, making Black women’s hair a helpful lens through which to investigate the gendered and racialized bounds of workplace appearance. 

 

Appearance Management in the Workplace


 

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), the world’s largest professional society for human resource professionals, has 285,000 members in more than 165 countries (Society for Human Resource Management, n.d.). SHRM recommends that organizations manage employee appearance, even providing a detailed rationale for dress appearance policies:

Employers realize that impressions made on clients and customers are important to the success of an organization. Employees typically are the “face” of the company, and employers are finding it increasingly advisable to control that image. In the past, employers used dress and appearance policies to help employees work comfortably and safely while still projecting a professional image to clients, customers and future employees. Employers over the years also have used dress and appearance policies to help create an employment brand. Some organizations intentionally use dress to create a specific perception or certain image as an employer. Dress codes help employers fulfill these varying goals of comfort, professionalism, safety, brand and image (Society for Human Resource Management, 2016, Business Case section, para. 2)

       SHRM notes that organizations must be careful that their appearance policies do not discriminate based on protected categories, such as gender or race (Society for Human Resource Management, 2016, Legal Issues Section, Gender disparities and Appearance and race paragraphs). For example, SHRM notes that organizations can have grooming requirements that employees be neat but organizations cannot prohibit employees from wearing Afro hairstyles, because this hairstyle is considered to be an immutable trait (i.e., not the result of choice) of Black people. Yet, organizations can legally tell employees that they cannot wear dreadlock hairstyles, because this hairstyle is considered to be a mutable trait (i.e., the result of choice) (Finley, 2016; Opie & Freeman, 2017). Further, organizations have been legally protected when firing women who refuse to wear makeup (Harvard Law Review, 2006). Thus, while appearance policies ostensibly apply to all employees, such policies may have unintended consequences for members of historically underrepresented groups, such as women and Black women. 

 

Women and Appearance Management in the Workplace


 

Women have constrained choice when it comes to creating a workplace appearance that projects a “professional” image. Specifically, gendered perceptions often tether women to sexualized bodies, which are viewed as obstacles to a woman’s career success (Entwistle, 2015). For example, as women began entering the workforce in increasing numbers and started to enter historically male-dominated employment fields, women were advised to “power dress,” that is, to wear a uniform that conveys authority and power, attributes associated with men and masculinity (Entwistle, 1997). The notion of professional business appearance as “uniform” helps to illuminate the role that business appearance serves in the workplace. Specifically, uniforms help to demarcate one group from another (i.e., business professionals versus others), shift focus from individuals to the group represented by the uniform, and provide a means to ensure conformity to the group (Joseph & Alex, 1972).

       Understanding business appearance as uniform elucidates why, for example, women were advised to get the right haircut or wear shorter hairstyles, as longer hair might appear too messy or emphasize their femininity and thus undermine their credibility in the workplace (Clift & Brazaitis, 2003; Moneypenny & McGregor, 2013). Such appearance advice for women to mimic men and deemphasize feminine traits was designed to increase the perception that women possessed masculine attributes (e.g., competence, drive, etc.) so that women could minimize and overcome negative gender stereotypes. In other words, women’s business appearance uniform was constructed so that women were more likely to be viewed as business professionals (i.e., demarcation), members of the professional class (i.e., shift focus from women as individuals to women as part of the professional group), and as conforming to professional norms (i.e., conformity). Yet, little consideration has been given to how the uniform of contemporary business professionals came to be.

       Outside of fashion studies, many people are unaware of the origins of the most ubiquitous symbol of business professionalism: the business suit. When asked, even management researchers and practitioners in the field of diversity and inclusion were unable to identify where the business suit originated (Opie, 2017, April). The business suit originated in the European royal court in 1666. Charles II introduced the three-piece suit as a symbol of restraint in response to criticisms from religious and economic leaders that the crown had lost its moral authority because of decadence, effeminacy, and emphasis on the consumption of material goods (Kuchta, 2002). Enter Beau Brummell in 1799, a British trendsetter who ascended the social ladder by giving fashion advice to wealthy, elite individuals. Brummell popularized more tailored, reserved suits that were initially used as lounging attire.  Eventually, the use of lounging attire spread and evolved into expected workplace attire. Despite the suit’s pervasiveness in contemporary times, most scholars, practitioners, and managers are likely unaware of its Eurocentric history. This brief case study of the suit illustrates how cultural norms, specific to one country or region, have become taken-for-granted indicators of professionalism (Opie & Freeman, 2017).

       While women may don “uniforms,” such as the business suit, to increase workplace success, research suggests that women (and perhaps men) prefer to wear fashion that reflects personal connections, identity, and achievement (Almila, 2015; see fig. 1). Further, women tend to touch and wear their clothing before purchasing it to assess if the clothing is “them” and to consider how others will judge the clothing (Derrington, 2009). Thus, donning uniforms may come at a cost if women suppress how they would prefer to dress and style themselves in order to obtain workplace success (Hewlin, 2003, 2009)

FIGURE 1

Afro-textured hair can be fashioned into a variety of styles such as twists, updos, braids, afros, and locks.

 

The Intersectional Experience of Black Women and Appearance Management in the Workplace


 

Black women contend with the aforementioned gender constraints on appearance, as well as racialized constraints. Hair is a helpful tool for examining the unique, intersectional challenges confronted by Black women (Johnson, 2013). Hair is an important though understudied element of the business uniform that is full of symbolic meaning (Berry, 2008) and that has important implications for identity and authenticity in the workplace. Because of its mutable nature, how one decides to groom their hair may communicate self-identity and values (Johnson, 2013), making hair a key way to construct, preserve, and alter one’s identity (Opie & Phillips, 2015; Sheane, 2012; Weitz, 2001).

      Historically, Black hair was characterized as the antithesis of Whiteness; that is, Black hair was portrayed as the antithesis of what is good, proper, and beautiful (Thompson, 2009). In fact, Black hair was sometimes not even called “hair” but “wool,” likening it more to animal fur than human hair (Byrd & Tharps, 2001). Such conceptions dehumanized Black people, suggesting that Black people were sub-human, more like animals than people (Dash, 2006; Holmes, 2016).

      Advertisements encouraged Black people to straighten their hair so that they would be more socially accepted and desired, perhaps even more humanized. Straight hair signified collective progress and higher economic class. Black hair that was straightened, conforming to Eurocentric norms of beauty, was privileged over natural, kinky textured hair (Thompson, 2009). Hair is second only to skin color in determining “Blackness” (Mercer, 1994). In the case of Black women in particular, Afrocentric or naturally textured1 hairstyles that reflect African heritage (Johnson, 2013) are often viewed as being in violation of workplace appearance norms; and, therefore, labelled as unprofessional. The message that Afrocentric hair is unprofessional or undesirable is reinforced by advertising and cultural norms and reified by the law, which allows employers to discriminate based on employee hairstyle (Caldwell, 1991).

1 Naturally textured hair refers to women wearing their hair in a chemically unaltered state that reveals its naturally wavy, coily, or kinky texture. While some Black women have naturally straight hair, textured hair characterizes the majority of Black women (Mintel, 2016).

      Contemporary media cases illustrate that hair remains a policed domain for Black women. For example, a manager of a New York branch of Banana Republic instructed an African-American employee, 19-year-old Destiny Thompkins, that her braided hairstyle violated the company’s dress code. Specifically, Thompkins’ manager stated, “It is a little too urban and unkempt for our look and image. We were wondering if you could take them out.” Thompkins shared her experience on social media and the news media picked up her story. Banana Republic launched an investigation of the incident and the manager was subsequently fired. An excerpt from the company’s statement noted, “Banana Republic has zero tolerance for discrimination. This situation was completely unacceptable, counter to our policies, and in no way reflects our company’s beliefs and values” (Nelson, 2017) . Media outlets such as Essence Magazine, Teen Vogue, The Atlantic, the BBC, NPR, and other popular outlets have discussed the discrimination that Black women face based on their hairstyles (e.g., see Bates, 2017; Dirshe, 2018; Honey, 2017; Sini, 2016; Wilkinson, 2016). This landscape explains why Black women are particularly susceptible to hair policing in the workplace, experiencing pressure to conform to Eurocentric standards of hair grooming (Opie & Phillips, 2015).

      The process of attaining “beautiful” (i.e., Eurocentric) hair has been described as violent as Black women may endure, among other things, physical discomfort and a symbolic stripping away of their African heritage when they chemically straighten their hair (Oyedemi, 2016). Black people spend much time, energy, and money on their hair, as evidenced by the presence of multiple barbershops and salons in Black neighborhoods (Mercer, 1994); as well, Black people spend considerable expenditures on hair care products and styling, with the Black haircare market estimated at $2.5 billion (Mintel, 2017). Black people clearly give thought to their hair and this makes it more difficult when Black employees experience hair policing in the workplace. It is important to note that I am not arguing that for Black women, natural hair = authentic and Eurocentric hair = inauthentic.

 
 

At issue here is that Black women should have the freedom to wear their hair however they choose to, without fear of negative consequence if they dare don their natural tresses at work.

 
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       The case of Chastity Jones exemplifies the workplace pressures and hair policing that Black women may endure as a result of Eurocentric-biased appearance policies. In 2010, Jones received a formal job offer from an insurance company. However, the firm reneged on its employment offer when Jones would not cut off her dreadlocks, a hairstyle the firm claimed violated its appearance policies. Specifically, a human resources manager complained that dreadlocks “tend to get messy” and therefore violated the firm’s requirement that all employees convey “a professional and businesslike image.” Jones filed suit against the firm. Jones lost the lawsuit because the court ruled that while firms cannot discriminate based on hair texture (an immutable trait that employees do not choose), firms can legally discriminate based on hairstyle (a mutable trait that employees can or cannot choose to display). Thus, the organization’s appearance policies and the law mutually support the attitude that certain Afrocentric hairstyles are not acceptable (Opie & Freeman, 2017).