Dreadlock Discrimination: Is There Such A Thing?

Antonio Hegwood (pictured at left) may have to shave his head to keep his job. A few weeks ago, his supervisors at a St. Louis gas station told him not to come back unless he got rid of his dreadlocks. Employers are allowed to have policies on hairstyles, but this case grazes the limits of the law.

Petro Mart hired Hegwood in January to work as an overnight clerk. He claims that his dreads, which hang halfway down his neck, only became a problem 4½ months into the job, reports the St. Louis Post Dispatch. Petro Mart's policy states that hair should be "kept neat and clean ... immoderate styles ... such as corn rows, braids etc. must be approved by a supervisor... dreadlocks and Mohawks are unacceptable."

So far, the 24-year-old has been standing firm, but with three children to feed, and a business degree to fund, he may be forced to slice off his backcombed coils.

Western Oil Co., which owns Petro Mart, didn't return a request for comment.

In this case, the law may be on Hegwood's side. Companies can't have policies that negatively impact one race more than another, unless they have a legitimate business reason to do so. A ban on dreadlocks affects black employees way more than white employees, so employers need a good reason for it.

Some have taken their follicles all the way to court. Abdul Jabbar Gbajabiamila sued Abercrombie & Fitch in 2010 for race discrimination after he was fired for refusing to take out his corn rows. The corporate policy demanded that employees have hair that's "clean, classic, and natural," but Gbajabiamila's lawyer believed Abercrombie meant "clean, classic and natural" in a particularly white way.

The store's "Look Book" of its sales staff included 36 head shots, and the 11 white men had hairstyles ranging from crew cut, to spiked, to flowing. But the black men all had highly cropped hair, where you couldn't see the texture.

Gbajabiamila's lawyer said he was fired for the "biology of his hair"; Gbajabiamila's hairs were "black, coarse and very curly," according to the lawsuit, "typical of Sub-Saharan African hair." Abercrombie and Gbajabiamila settled for an undisclosed amount.

Corporate hair policies can also rub up against religious laws. "He shall be holy until the days are fulfilled for which he separated himself to the LORD; he shall let the locks of hair of his head grow long," states Numbers 6:5. And while most modern-day followers of the Old Testament get regular trims, some don't. By law, companies are required to provide "reasonable accommodation" for employees' religious beliefs.

Last year, a Roanoke, Va.-based moving company agreed to pay $30,000 as part of a settlement to Christopher Woodson, who claimed that he was denied a job as a loader because of his long, dreadlocked hair, reported The Associated Press. He claimed that his hairstyle was an expression of his Rastafarian religion, and after the settlement, the company agreed to implement new anti-discrimination policies.

Bobby Brown, a Rastafarian and a Jiffy Lube technician in Boston, also refused to cut his dreadlocks as part of the company's new grooming policy. So his supervisors moved him to a lower bay, out of sight of customers. He sued in 2006, and the court agreed that Jiffy Lube was guilty of religious discrimination.

Christopher Abbey didn't cut his hair once during the whole six years that he worked at a Taco Bell in Fayetteville, N.C. In fact, he hadn't cut his hair since he was 15, because he belongs to the Nazirites, an obscure sect which believes long, uncut hair is a sign of devotion to God. In April 2010, the store fired him when he refused to chop his locks. Last week, Family Foods, Inc., which operates a number of Taco Bells in North Carolina, agreed to pay him $27,000 to settle the suit.

Companies are struggling to convince courts that their hair policies are based on legitimate business reasons. " 'Our customers don't like black hair' doesn't cut it," says Lisa Holder, who represented Gbajabiamila in the Abercrombie case. "They need to come up with something else."

The American Mustache Institute didn't see any business reason for Disney's 60-year facial hair ban. After years of pressure, Disney finally lifted the prohibition at its Disneyland and Disney World theme parks in January this year.

Hegwood, for one, doesn't think the Petro Mart policy makes sense. "It's a gas station," he told the Dispatch. "People aren't going to not buy gas just because the clerk has dreads."

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I worked at a gas station while I was in college and they were very strict about our hair, at the time my hair was waist length and the manager was adamant that all of us whose hair was longer than our shoulders (guys and girls!) keep our hair pinned up or tied up out of the way b/c we also had a MTO food counter and we were responsible for unloading and stocking the cooler, the manager was concerned our long hair would get into peoples food or get caught on stuff in the freezer or on the machines we had to clean (drink, soft serve, coffee, etc)

May 08 2012 at 10:01 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Lacy Wilmerton

This is soooo stupid. Dreads are not dirty. At least not if the person who has them keeps them clean and knows how. Besides, cornrows and dreads look way better than a fro. It's one way people with tight curly hairs manage their hair, because if they don't put cornrows or dreads in it, they CONSTANTLY have to pick it out so that it doesn't tangle and get all jacked up. And do you really want your cashier constantly picking at their hair? No thank you. I'd rather he do his job than have to keep up an appearance CONSTANTLY, and, were he to not be picking, nasty and tangled look is okay with this gas station? Gross. At least guy wants to look nice while at work.

May 08 2012 at 9:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The written policy is, what the written policy is. Do you want to keep your job, or your hair? It's that simple folks. He simply has a choice to make.

May 08 2012 at 6:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Dan's comment
Jun and Terry

this a form of terrorism,my way or no way,basically what the terrorist are you live our way or you die,any threat be it job or life is terrorism.

May 08 2012 at 11:14 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Not when it's a religious symbol.

May 08 2012 at 11:15 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Are you serious? Dreads can be washed and be neat and clean. If you have access to a computer why dont you research the topic before make comments.

May 08 2012 at 5:19 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

2 sides to this one...1) Cut the hair and be grateful to have a job to go to...2) Review your policies with potential employees so as to not put yourself in this type situation. I lean toward #2...maybe the one in supervisory position that did the hire...should lose their job because they apparently aren't familiar with company policy.

May 08 2012 at 4:22 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to jmzbzle's comment

My daughter (caucasian) cosmetologist was hired with dreadlocks in her hair and fired over a week later for dreadlocks in her hair! They are clean, she takes care of them and she is quite beautiful. They are not offensive in any way. She shouldn't have been hired in the first place if dreads are a problem!

June 10 2013 at 1:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
The DivaStyle Coach

If an individual's hair style does not affect their ability to do a job - i.e. inability to wear a safety helmet, inability to seal a gas mask (like in the military), etc, or is potentially hazardous to their health - i.e. long, unbound hair on a manufacturing facility floor, then an employer should NOT be able to dictate hair styles. I see nothing wrong with the young man's locs - he can tie them back in many different ways to keep them neat and tight to his head, and if the employer would do even the SLIGHTEST amount of research on locs and those who wear them, they would find out that the vast majority of loc wearers wash their hair regularly, HATE anything that builds up or leaves residue on their locs, and prefer the style because it limits the amount of chemicals they are exposed to, leading to an overall healthier and more natural-oriented lifestyle. This is ignorance in motion - and perhaps not maliciously, but this and ALL employers need to educate themselves before they start creating policies that discriminate against any ONE group of people. It is costly, damaging to their public reputation, and simply unnecessary.

I spent over 30 years relaxing my hair - in part to "fit in" in corporate America; I then grew out my perm and went "napptural", wearing an afro for more than 3 years. This past February, I started my loc journey and have recieved nothing but positive reactions and curiosity about my hair. I make sure my hair is styled regularly, washed regularly, and have a collection of hairstyles suitable for corporate America and the fact that I run my own business.

I'd be willing to bet if his employers asked reasonable accommodation of this young man - for instance, tying his locs back in a neat and controlled manner - he would be amenable and this incident woutd be a non-issue.

May 08 2012 at 3:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Cut the damn hair and be happy you have a job.

May 08 2012 at 2:23 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to muffypuff's comment
Jun and Terry

terrorist,control freak

May 08 2012 at 11:17 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I personally don't like dreads because of the crud factor but if he's doing his job well and he doesn't have a head stink about him, then who cares how he wears HIS hair. That said, the owner of the gas station is allowed to put in place whatever policy he wants because it's his business, his rules. That stinks but maybe they can come to an agreement and he can wear a rag on his head or a cap.

May 08 2012 at 2:21 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

I don't mind the look, but If soap doesn't wash between each strand, it stays dirty. How can you wash between each strand when it is tied in tight knots? I really don't see how the deeper knots can possibly be clean. So if you see someone wearing it longer than a couple days, well, you do the math.

May 08 2012 at 1:41 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
4 replies to Jim's comment
The Dilly Family

I'm wondering, when the people that sued and won, try to find a new job, how future employers will view their lawsuits (easily found when doing a background check).

May 08 2012 at 1:37 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to The Dilly Family's comment

Maybe, just maybe, if the EMPLOYERS didn't discriminate and treated people like human being instead of as an ox THEY wouldn't be sued!! IT'S TIME TO PUT THE EMPLOYERS IN THEIR PLACE!!! They are buying a block of time, THEY HAVE NO RIGHT DICTATING PEOPLE'S LIVES!!! If it weren't for the EMPLOYEES the employers would have NOTHING, now get off your selfish asses and BE GRATEFUL for the life we employees have given you and STOP BEING A BUNCH OF GREEDY ABUSIVE PRICKS!!!

May 08 2012 at 2:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

thats irrelevant.. why? because after you won a law suit , you are typically set for life.

May 08 2012 at 7:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to xbrokekidx's comment

$27,000 is not even close to set for life. Maybe a year, if you really stretch it.

October 06 2014 at 5:03 PM Report abuse rate up rate down

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