Are dreadlocks acceptable in corporate America?

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Monique Grissette-Banks is an African-American woman who has successfully climbed the corporate ladder. She has worn her hair in dreadlocks for the past six years and says from personal experience locks are becoming more acceptable in corporate America.

As corporate culture encounters more skilled and professional dreadlocked people “how we decide to wear our hair becomes a less important factor,” says Grissette-Banks, an HR Manager at LexisNexis, with a master’s degree and in the final stages of her PhD.

“Since I’ve started working here, two other women in my division now wear locks and there’s also a man,” says Grissette-Banks, who wears shoulder-length dreads.

Professional women are embracing their “nappy” hair, “because salons are creating interesting and diverse styles, even if hair is not chemically altered,” says Rosario Schuler, founder of Oh! My Nappy Hair, a trio of salons in L.A, Oakland and Atlanta that specialize in the care, styling and maintenance of natural hair.

“Initially people are just fascinated that their hair can grow but if long manes aren’t well-maintained they get matty,” Schuler says. “But locks are extremely versatile and we can take any straight hairstyle and recreate the style with locks.”

However, Alice Sydow, an image consultant based in Minneapolis, concedes she would advise clients to wear dreadlocks with caution. “You have to consider your geography, the industry you work in, and what level you are in your company,” says Sydow, who has corporate clients.

“For example, if you are in an artistic industry, working at a music label or advertising agency, then dreadlocks that are well-maintained and styled are more acceptable than if you worked at a law firm or in a corporate-level position.”

Schuler’s daughter Erica Blevins-Richardson, who manages the Oh! My Nappy Hair location in Atlanta, still maintains “once locks are styled and well-maintained they look great.”

Blevins-Richardson, who has styled dreadlocks for a host of celebrities, including Stevie Wonder, Lennox Lewis and Lalah Hathaway, says media acceptance of dreadlocks has encouraged their popularity.

Though, in smaller cities or towns, locks might raise eyebrows (especially if the hair isn’t professionally done), but for the most part, in large metropolitan areas, wearing locks isn’t such a big deal, Blevins-Richardson says.Image consultant Sydow agrees. “You also should take into consideration your geography as the Midwest could be more conservative than the east or west coast,” she says.

It was not so long ago, though, that dreadlocks, like all natural hairstyles, were not considered “corporate” enough.

In 1981, for example, Renee Rogers, a one-time African-American employee of American Airlines, challenged in federal court the airline’s policy of prohibiting employees who had contact with the public from wearing all-braided “cornrow” hairstyles. The judge dismissed her lawsuit in favor of the airline.

Surprisingly, Grissette-Banks says she has experienced little overt disapproval in corporate culture. The majority of negative comments have come from black folks, a tendency that seems prevalent.

In 2006, for instance Black Enterprise magazine raised eyebrows when it forced a summer intern, Mashaun Simon, to cut his locks to retain the internship. During the same year, Hampton University, a well-respected historically black university, also found itself in the spotlight for requiring conservative hairstyles in its business school.

Despite these challenges, Blevins-Richardson says people wear dreadlocks for a variety of reasons ranging from personal empowerment to making an artistic fashion statement. Then there are people who wear locks as a necessity because everything they have done so far has made their hair fall out.

For Grissette-Banks her transition to dreads was a deeply personal experience. She gave up relaxers a decade ago because she was struggling to conceive. “I didn’t know what the problem was so I decided to eliminate all chemicals from my body,” she told theGrio.

After she gave birth to her daughter, maintaining her natural hair became a conscious demonstration of personal ideals. “At the time I was working as a diversity manager and wearing my hair in twists seemed to fit in with my values and lifestyle,” she says.

Yet her transition to locks was fraught with concern. Would the permanency of dreads negatively impact her career?

“With twists or other natural hairstyles I knew I had the choice of opting for another look if I was going for a job interview or needed to be in a certain corporate environment,” says Grissette-Bank. “With locks I knew there was no going back.”

Now she says she has never looked back and could not imagine giving up her locks for straight hair.

“I would not want to be part of any organization that limits my opportunities because of my hairstyle,” says Grissette-Bank. “Companies should and often do employ you for what you can bring to the table,” she adds.

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