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Is Natural Hair a Corporate Career Killer?

How to be unapologetic in pursuit of your professional goals.

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A woman wears a natural hair style while working at a desk.
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It’s unfortunate that natural hair can be a career liability. A casual observation of the national landscape reveals few African-American female corporate executives, news anchors for major networks, principals or deans going natural in their positions. We will never know if women adopt the more conservative approach of relaxed straight hair in these roles by choice or pressure.

It’s 2019, and I wish I could say I’m shocked that we are still having a natural hair dilemma in corporate America, but I’m not. The New York Times published an article on Feb. 18, stating the New York City Commission on Human Rights was releasing new guidelines that “targeting people based on their hairstyles, at work, school or in public spaces, will now be considered racial discrimination.”

New York City’s Human Rights Commission specifically asserts the right of people to have “natural hair, treated or untreated hairstyles such as locs, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, fades, Afros, and/or the right to keep hair in an uncut or untrimmed state.” In practice, the guidelines give legal recourse to individuals who have been harassed, threatened, punished, demoted or fired because of the texture or style of their hair.

The city commission can levy penalties up to $250,000 on defendants who violate the guidelines, with no cap on damages, and force internal policy changes and rehiring. Although the guidelines are not nationwide yet, other states and employers should be aware of these new guidelines.

The potential corporate backlash has made many corporate African American women opt out of the natural hair journey. I remember when I decided to embrace my natural hair texture, I wasn’t concerned about the impact on my job. I did the big chop and had a TWA (teeny-weeny Afro). It never occurred to me at the time that my natural hair would ever come across as an unprofessional way to wear one’s hair. Colleagues questioned my health; the texture of my TWA led some to suggest that the new style was unprofessional for someone at my level.

Once I got beyond the sting, I realized that my hair sparked a necessary dialogue I needed to have with my peers of senior executives, as well as the broader organization. I used my position and influence to educate them about the repercussions of their behaviors and biases, which opened the door for a deeper conversation beyond hair. It was imperative they understood the business impact of authenticity, diversity and inclusion on workplace culture, engagement and profits.

If you’re contemplating wearing natural hair in corporate America, here are some things to consider:

  1. Show up self-assured that you’re adding value whether you wear the big chop, kinky-curly coils or other natural styles. You still have the same expertise and rock star brilliance. Focus on your “sweet spot,” aligning your passions and capabilities with the organizations’ need. Stellar results will remove any fear about being unapologetically you.
  2. Don’t let opinions about your hairstyle take center stage. Understand that every comment isn’t meant as shade. Keep the main thing the main thing, which is your work contribution and execution.
  3. If some comments are offensive, have a professional conversation directly with those making them, even if it’s your manager. Depending on the situation, you may need to loop in HR. The key is to speak up and make sure it’s clear that their behavior is disrespectful and you would like them to stop.
  4. If you want to rock a natural style, do it! You don’t need to ask for permission to determine if it’s acceptable or appropriate. Take the stance with confidence that it is. Women of color can be so concerned with others’ perceptions of them that they water themselves down to fit in.

India Arie’s “I Am Not My Hair” is still is a valid mantra for work environments. We must stand up for the truth that being ourselves and being corporate are not two different things. The good news is that there are many organizations that are culturally coherent and cultivate inclusion as their norm. Find one that values what’s inside your head rather than what’s on top of it.