Hair stylist Melanie Strandberg quit her job at a spa in Spokane after she was told to wear a wig to cover her bald head at work. The Spokane Spokesman-Review reports that she has since filed a discrimination lawsuit against her former employer. The question is, what kind of discrimination did she face?
After Strandberg learned that her sister would have to undergo chemotherapy treatment for cancer, she shaved her head in solidarity. However, Strandberg’s supervisor asked her to wear a wig at work, claiming that her appearance would make clients uncomfortable and that she could not effectively market hair products if she did not have hair. Strandberg disagreed and turned to human resources to solve the issue. When they told her to listen to her supervisor, Strandberg resigned.
Federal and Washington state law prohibit many forms of discrimination, but hairstyle discrimination is not one of them. That said, there are a few protected classes that Strandberg may fall into.
Under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the Washington Law Against Discrimination (“WLAD”), an employer cannot discriminate against an employee on account of disability, including if the employee has a relationship with someone who has a disability. In some cases, cancer can count as a disability.
If Strandberg had been bald because of chemotherapy related to cancer, then her being told to wear a wig might count as disability discrimination. If Strandberg’s supervisor had fired her or cut her hours based on an assumption that Strandberg would take time off to care for her sister, that would probably count as disability discrimination. However, in this case, Strandberg’s supervisor told her to wear a wig because of her baldness, not because of her sister’s cancer. In these circumstances, it might be difficult to prove discrimination on account of disability.
Both federal and Washington law prohibit an employer from discriminating on account of that person’s gender. One form of discrimination is differential treatment, which means that the employer is treating employees differently based on a certain trait—in this case, gender. For example, if male employees at the spa were allowed to be bald and not wear wigs, then requiring female employees to hide their baldness would be a form of discrimination in the form of differential treatment.
If Strandberg can show that her baldness was treated differently because she was a woman, she may be able to prove gender discrimination. If Strandberg was harassed at work because she was a woman who was bald, then she might be able to prove a harassment claim as well.
Strandberg’s story is a good example of the many different forms that discrimination can take. If you feel you have been treated unfairly at work, an employment attorney can help you determine if you have been the victim of unlawful discrimination.