Dear Prudence

Help! My Boss Wants Me to Police My Black Employees’ Hairstyles.

Dear Prudence answers more of your questions—only for Slate Plus members.

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Every week, Dear Prudence answers additional questions from readers, just for Slate Plus members.

Q. Hairy situation: I’m in management at a midsize company that does a lot of face-to-face business. We’ve continued to do so over Zoom since we all started working from home. The personal appearance of many of my team members no longer meets our dress code standards.
I personally don’t think most of the issues are that big a deal, but my supervisor is a stickler, even now. He always has me handle it. Most of the time, I just send out an email reminding everybody of our standards. There have been a few times, however, when my supervisor has demanded that I talk to the person directly. I’m in a pickle now because one of the women he wants me to talk to right now is black.

He has had me talk to white employees too, so I know this isn’t exactly racist, but I worry that it’s still a thorny issue. We don’t require anything fancy, but we do recommend some easy, “sleek” styles, as my boss would say, for anybody who doesn’t have time to do their hair. The woman my boss wants me to talk to has repeatedly had digital meetings with clients when her hair was not done like she normally does it. I know things are stressful right now, but I don’t really know what to do at this point. She and other black employees have done their hair in ways that I know are considered “unprofessional” in other environments (which I know because I used to work in one of those environments and heard how difficult it was for black women to do their hair) and my boss has never said anything about those. I am a white woman who does not know exactly how black women take care of their hair. Should I talk to the employee and ask her if there is something easy she can do? Should I talk to other black women first to get their opinion? See if my supervisor knows how difficult it is for black women to take care of their hair and see about sending out an email with way more examples of hairstyles? I’m really out of my element but I know that a standard response is probably not going to cut it. Thoughts on what I can do?

A: It’s important to clarify two things here: First, whether this particular guideline is racist does not depend upon whether you’ve also been asked to speak to white employees about their appearance or dress in the past; it depends upon the fact that this particular standard is based upon your boss’s idea of “sleekness” (which sounds like a substitute for “relaxed” here). Second, black hair is not uniquely or inherently difficult to style—corporate codes of dress and hairstyle are rooted in racism. Black hairstyles are often uniquely targeted, surveilled, hyperscrutinized, and dismissed as “unprofessional.” This is not an inherent function of black hair but of anti-black racism. “Sleekness” is not a universal sign of professionalism. Your state may also have protections in place against discriminatory hair standards. You don’t need to know how your direct reports style their hair in order to push back on this request: “I’ll continue to remind employees of our standardized dress code, but I’m not going to insist on ‘sleekness’ as the sole determining factor of professional hairstyles,” especially since it doesn’t sound like your company has a formal hairstyle policy, and relying on your white boss’s personal preference for “sleekness” is discriminatory.