Sandra Rawline, a real estate closer in Houston, filed an age discrimination and retaliation lawsuit last week against her former employer, claiming that her position was terminated because she refused to dye her gray hair. Rawline, whose hair turned gray in her 20′s, says she has always liked the color. Now in her early 50′s, she says that she lost her job at Capital Title of Texas in 2009 after her employer told her that with a move to a new location, the office wanted a more “upscale” image. This meant that Rawline needed to dye her hair, start wearing “younger fancy suits” and more jewelry.
Rawline declined to revamp her look, and was informed days later that she no longer had a job. She was replaced by a woman who was 10 years younger. Her work performance did not seem to be an issue, although the company claimed that she was fired, not because of her appearance, but because a customer had “refused to work with her.” It’s hard to believe that this vague explanation is grounds for a firing, especially given that Rawline had won “outstanding employee” awards in 2004 and 2005, and was promoted to branch manager in 2006.
Her lawyer, Robert Dowdy, explained, “I don’t think anyone should be embarrassed or humiliated for growing older.” But the issue isn’t simply that Rawline’s employer openly criticized her appearance, because the loss of her job has had serious monetary consequences. Rawline was unable to find a similar position and has lost almost $20,000 from her annual salary as a result.
Age discrimination cases can be complicated because employers do have some rights when it comes to their employees’ appearances. They can, for example, “require uniforms, combed hair and tucked-in shirttails.” But if Rawline was fired because she didn’t look sufficiently youthful, then she does have a legitimate grievance, compounded by the fact that such a request was unlikely to be made of one of her male peers.
Workplace appearance is an issue which often weighs more heavily on women. If employers can require makeup, then it doesn’t seem like such a stretch to demand a change in hair color. A British woman recently resigned from her job at Harrods, a London department store, saying that she was repeatedly asked to wear makeup as part of the dress code, despite the fact that she was performing her job well without it. Men are less likely to be subjected to the same rigorous standards of appearance, especially as they grow older. Capital Title’s CEO defended the company’s position by pointing out that he had gray hair too, but his comments simply reveal that Rawline may have been a victim of gender as well as age discrimination.
If Rawline was doing her job well, she should have been permitted to continue doing so, without being asked, much less forced, to change her hair color. Requiring a dress code is one thing. But demanding that an employee change her hair color is completely inappropriate.
Photo from Dean Wissing via Wikimedia Commons.