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Pink Hair in the Workplace

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A few months ago, I was having lunch with a good friend who — although she is not an employment lawyer — likes to get my thoughts on current workplace issues. As we ate our pizzas, my friend wanted to talk about the Millennial receptionist at her office who had showed up earlier that morning having dyed her hair bright pink. Apparently, the human resources manager had not been amused and sent the young woman home telling her not to return unless she dyed her hair a more natural color.

“Can she sue the company?” my friend asked. By pure coincidence, I had met a very famous pink-haired woman earlier that weekend, when my law firm hosted the cast party for Houston Grand Opera’s production of “The Pearl Fishers.” The exotic production and brightly colored costumes had been designed by 78-year old Dame Zandra Rhodes, the famous British fashion designer, who is widely recognized for her shocking bright pink hair. “If Dame Zandra can wear her hair bright pink, why can’t the receptionist at a local oil company?” I thought.

Alas, there is probably no legal right to wear pink hair, at least for now. However, a proposed bill in California would expand the definition of “race” as “to include hairstyles associated with being black.” While this would not help the white receptionist with pink hair, it could provide protection to a person with color who had braids or Bantu knots. The New York City Commission on Human Rights also issued recent guidance addressing discrimination based on hair styles associated with being black. Could laws protecting pink hair be next?

Even though employers can legally — at least for now — prohibit employees from having pink hair, tattoos and certain types of piercings, it bears noting that employers are increasingly reconsidering such prohibitions, since they often have the effect of eliminating many talented younger candidates from the applicant pool. And while older workers and customers may look askance at eye-popping hair colors, for many in the younger generations, it has become the new normal.

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“Some of my best friends have colorful hair.” – Chris Bacon

This information is provided by Vinson & Elkins LLP for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended, nor should it be construed, as legal advice.