I like to dye my hair blue, but Mayo Clinic frowns on artificially colored manes. What am I to do?
Dear Answer Man,
How can your average lowly Mayo Clinic employee express herself through the incredible variety of hair dyes available? Mayo policy says, “hair dye must be a natural color.” My vibrant blue, tastefully applied highlights are an asset to my bouncy, Tiger-like personality and a wonderful conversation starter with people of all ages.
Mayo, which prides itself on its diversity and inclusion, has let me down on this one. I sent an email to Policy and Procedure, requesting they consider updating their policy on this but never heard anything. What am I to do with this dilemma, Mr. Well-Connected? Will you ask “Your People” for advice about my next strategic move?
— Saddened Seasoned RN
We did talk to our people.
The simple answer: No one can make you change your hair color but in many workplaces, it is not a consequence-free decision. An employer can ask you to change it to a natural color and can end your employment for violation of its rules.
Does an employee’s hair — whether blue, orange, green or yellow — say anything about a person's competence or ability to do the job? Most people would say no.
And yet, whether right or wrong, workplace dress, hairstyle and appearance are bound up in cultural attitudes that in the workplace, convey signals about work ethic and industriousness. Mayo’s culture — and to a certain extent Rochester’s — has been more conservative and slower to change than most. Just think of IBM’s stuffy dress codes of the past with its white shirt-and-black-tie attire.
In a statement, Mayo Clinic spokeswoman said the clinic's Dress & Decorum policy "currently does not allow unnatural hair colors, such as blue, green and pink."
And yet even Mayo Clinic has adapted and changed dress and appearance policies to reflect changing times.
John Klassen, a Twin Cities attorney and expert in anti-discrimination law, says that unless her appearance or hair color preference stems from any sort of legally recognized protected status, it doesn’t rise to a civil right recognized by state or federal law.
Generally speaking, anti-discrimination laws are aimed at protecting people from discrimination with regard to age, race, gender, religion, disability and LGBTQ+ status.
Klassen gives the example of Sikhs who joins a police force but wants to wear a turban while on duty. Even though police codes have largely been unchanging over the decades, the Sikh individual would likely prevail in court, because of the turban’s connection to his religion.
Yet employers have an interest in maintaining a standard of appearance that people associate with professionalism and perceptions of competence. To give an extreme example to make the point, a dental clinic does not have to hire a furry who wants to dress up as a ring-tailed lemur.
“You’re behind the front reception desk, you’re gonna scare the hell out of the patients,” Klassen said.
Still, hair has become a new civil rights battleground. This last year, lawmakers in at least 15 states have considered or passed bills to prohibit hair discrimination in work or schools settings. These proposed laws have been focused on Black Americans who have been discriminated against for displaying their hair texture in the form of braids, twists and dreadlocks.
However glacial, Mayo Clinic has relaxed its appearance policies, and therein lies the hope. Seven years ago, Mayo Clinic ended the rule requiring female employees to wear pantyhose or tights while on the job, prompting a collective Braveheart-like rebel yell, “Freedom,” to issue forth from women.
And in 2017, Mayo Clinic loosened up its policy regarding tattoos, which, prior to the change, mandated that employees cover them up or face discipline. The change allowed tattoos to be visible as long as they did not convey violence, discrimination or sexually explicit content.
And workplace attitudes toward hair have and are changing. Seen not just as an adornment but a way of expressing a person’s personality and creativity, more workplaces are no longer viewing hair dyed in vibrant colors and professionalism as incompatible.
So, who knows, maybe one day, your mane of blue-tinted hair will be allowed to be displayed freely, allowing free reign to your Tiger-like personality.
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