Employment discrimination comes in all shapes and colors, as a former Hooter's waitress discovered recently when she was fired because of the color of her hair. Farryn Johnson believes she was terminated for having what Hooter's considered an "unnatural" hair color. You might assume that Johnson had dyed her hair purple or green. No. It was her blonde highlights that cost her a job.
Can an employer really terminate you for the color of your hair?
Farryn Johnson, 25, worked as a waitress at the Baltimore Inner Harbor Hooter's restaurant in Maryland. According to Johnson, not long after she put blonde highlights in her brown hair, she was fired. The reason her employer gave for her termination was her "unnatural" hair color. In an interview, Johnson said she was specifically told that "black women don't have blonde in their hair, so you have to take it out." Johnson believes the decision to terminate her for this reason was racially motivated, not only because of the statement, but also the fact that Asian waitresses were allowed to have red hair and Caucasian waitresses were allowed to have black hair with blonde streaks.
Johnson has filed a racial discrimination complaint against Hooter's with the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights. The basis for the complaint is the fact that, by law, employers cannot have separate rules for employees of different races. In this case, Johnson claims she was targeted solely because she is black.
Of course Rebecca Sinclair, chief human resources officer for Hooters of America, denies any discrimination in their policies. Sinclair was quoted as saying:
"When you're representing an iconic brand there are standards to follow. Hooters Girls are required to be camera-ready at all times to promote the glamorous, wholesome look for which Hooters is known. Hooters adamantly denies that it has different policies and standards for hair based on race. As a global brand, Hooters embraces our culturally diverse employee base and our standards are applied impartially."
Although employers generally have the legal right to run their business any way they see fit, they cannot have policies that are applied differently to different races.
How do you prove race discrimination?
Racial discrimination in the workplace is prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, among other laws. These laws prevent an employer like Hooter's from firing or disciplining its employees based on their race. The issue Johnson's case raises is whether firing someone because of their hair color is the same as firing them because of their race? In this case, the answer is yes. Hooters' alleged "unnatural" hair color reason will not work here if Johnson's coworkers were allowed to have "unnatural" colors in their hair but were not given the same ultimatum.
Could Hooter's have any possible defense?
In cases like these, employers can raise a defense known as "BFOQ" or bona fide occupational qualification. Hooter's can try to prove that their appearance requirements for their waitresses are essential to their job performance. This defense requires a delicate balance, however. Employers need to be able to define personal appearance and grooming standards. But should they be allowed to require or prohibit specific hairstyles? Under federal anti-discrimination laws, they cannot, if doing so results in unlawful discrimination.
If you believe that you have been the target of illegal discrimination, contact an employment attorney to protect your rights.