In the wake of a U.K. Parliamentary Committee hearing on “high heels and workplace dress codes,” Harrods is under fire after allegations of discriminatory employment practices. A black woman applying for work at the London-based department store was told that she wouldn’t get the job unless she chemically straightened her hair to look more “professional.”
The comment occurred during a group interview allegedly conducted by an agent at TBC Management, reports the Telegraph. Nicola Thorp, a 27-year-old former temp worker, testified to Parliament, “In one of the interview sessions that I attended, the woman who held the interview [on behalf of Harrods] … would go around the room and say, ‘You need a makeover, you need a makeover, you’re fine, you need a makeover.’” The agent reportedly singled out a black female job candidate, telling her, “You can’t work for me unless you have your hair chemically relaxed, because your hair, as it is, is not professional enough.”
These allegations are just the latest of the many accounts of black women profiled in the workplace due to hairstyle. In 2016, Rachel Sakabo was fired from the St. Regis in New York City after she was asked to remove her dreadlocks. Hotel management officially claimed that Sakabo wasn’t a culture fit with the hotel, although they were unable to provide specific detail on issues with her “fit” or performance.
This type of discrimination even extends to teens pulling part-time jobs: 16-year-old Tyler House scored a job at her local movie theater in Country Club Hills, Ill., only to be turned away on her first day because, she was told, “dreads are not allowed.”
In the United States, discrimination based on dreadlocks may not even be illegal. Chastity Jones, a black woman in Alabama, had a job offer until the insurance company in question rescinded it because of her hairstyle. Jones was explicitly told that her dreadlocked hair was the problem. Her potential employer reportedly said that dreadlocked hair “tend[s] to get messy, although I’m not saying yours are, but you know what I’m talking about.’”
Jones turned to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which sued the company on discriminatory grounds. She lost her case. In the eyes of the court, since dreadlocks are not an “inherently unchangeable” black characteristic, the firing isn’t technically a discrimination based on race.
While the courts fight about what technically is and isn’t discrimination, real people are losing their jobs as a result of bias against a black hairstyle. The U.K.’s own Equality and Human Rights Commission is looking into gender and racial discrimination in the workplace, so we can only hope that these “legal” discriminatory practices don’t cross continents. Neither Harrods nor TBC Management has returned requests for comment.